Sexting might be IN but Strip Searching is definitely OUT

By now the story of Savana Redding is well known, at least to readers of this blog where we have been discussing this case for almost a year.

After escorting 13-year-old Savana Redding from her middle school classroom to his office, an assistant principal accused her of distributing over-the-counter pain relief pills to fellow students. Savana denied the allegations and agreed to a search of her belongings. Finding nothing, the assistant principal then sent Savana to the school nurse for a strip-search. That search also turned up nothing.

Savana’s mother filed suit against the school district and the staff members who authorized and participated in the investigation alleging that the strip search violated Savana’s Fourth Amendment rights. Claiming qualified immunity, the staff members moved for summary judgment. The District Court granted the motion, finding that there was no Fourth Amendment violation, and the en banc Ninth Circuit reversed.

The case was appealed to United States Supreme Court. As we reported in April, Savana’s case wasn’t looking very good at oral argument where the mostly male justices reacted skeptically to her claim. Alas we, along with most commentators, were wrong. Last week, a near unanimous Court held that the strip search violated Savana’s Fourth Amendment rights.

The court recognized that for school searches, “the public interest is best served by a Fourth Amendment standard of reasonableness that stops short of probable cause.” T.L.O., 469 U. S., at 341. Under the resulting reasonable suspicion standard, a school search “will be permissible … when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.” Id., at 342. The required knowledge component of reasonable suspicion for a school administrator’s evidence search is that it raise a moderate chance of finding evidence of wrongdoing.

The Court found that while there was sufficient suspicion to justify searching Savana’s backpack and outer clothing, the suspected facts pointing to Savana did not indicate that the drugs presented a danger to students or were concealed in her underwear and therefore there was insufficient suspicion to warrant extending the search to her underwear.

The search necessarily exposed Savana’s breasts and pelvic area to some degree, and both subjective and reasonable societal expectations of personal privacy support the treatment of such a search as categorically distinct, requiring distinct elements of justification on the part of school authorities for going beyond a search of outer clothing and belongings. Savana’s subjective expectation of privacy is inherent in her account of it as embarrassing, frightening, and humiliating. The reasonableness of her expectation is indicated by the common reaction of other young people similarly searched, whose adolescent vulnerability intensifies the exposure’s patent intrusiveness. Its indignity does not outlaw the search, but it does implicate the rule that “the search [be] ‘reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.’” T.L.O., supra, at 341.

Perhaps the Court best summed up its position as follows:

Here, the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion. Because the assistant principal knew that the pills were common pain relievers, he must have known of their nature and limited threat and had no reason to suspect that large amounts were being passed around or that individual students had great quantities. Nor could he have suspected that Savana was hiding common painkillers in her underwear. When suspected facts must support the categorically extreme intrusiveness of a search down to an adolescent’s body, petitioners’ general belief that students hide contraband in their clothing falls short; a reasonable search that extensive calls for suspicion that it will succeed. Nondangerous school contraband does not conjure up the specter of stashes in intimate places, and there is no evidence of such behavior at the school;

In other words, stop acting like power crazed morons. Sometimes a Motrin is just a Motrin.

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