I had a post on the girl who was strip searched because it was believed that she had a prescription strength ibuprofen tablet. The case made its way to the Supreme Court who ruled today that the search was illegal but the school officials were not liable for the ensuing lawsuit (they did not rule whether the school district was).
Via here, some of the relevant facts are:
The events immediately prior to the search in question began in 13-year-old Savana Redding’s math class at Safford Middle School one October day in 2003. The assistant principal of the school, Kerry Wilson, came into the room and asked Savana to go to his office. There, he showed her a day planner, unzipped and open flat on his desk, in which there were several knives, lighters, a permanent marker, and a cigarette. Wilson asked Savana whether the planner was hers; she said it was, but that a few days before she had lent it to her friend, Marissa Glines. Savana stated that none of the items in the planner belonged to her.
Wilson then showed Savana four white prescription strength ibuprofen 400-mg pills, and one over-the-counter blue naproxen 200-mg pill, all used for pain and inflammation but banned under school rules without advance permission. He asked Savana if she knew anything about the pills. Savana answered that she did not. Wilson then told Savana that he had received a report that she was giving these pills to fellow students; Savana denied it and agreed to let Wilson search her belongings. Helen Romero, an administrative assistant, came into the office, and together with Wilson they searched Savana’s backpack, finding nothing.
At that point, Wilson instructed Romero to take Savana to the school nurse’s office to search her clothes for pills. Romero and the nurse, Peggy Schwallier, asked Savana to remove her jacket, socks, and shoes, leaving her in stretchpants and a T-shirt (both without pockets), which she was then asked to remove. Finally, Savana was told to pull her bra out and to the side and shake it, and to pull out the elastic on her underpants, thus exposing her breasts and pelvic area to some degree. No pills were found.
The Supreme Court found that the search of the backpack was reasonable:
Wilson had sufficient suspicion to justify searching Savana’s backpack and outer clothing. A week earlier, a student, Jordan, had told the principal and Wilson that students were bringing drugs and weapons to school and that he had gotten sick from some pills. On the day of the search, Jordan gave Wilson a pill that he said came from Marissa. Learning that the pill was prescription strength, Wilson called Marissa out of class and was handed the day planner.
Once in his office, Wilson, with Romero present, had Marissa turn out her pockets and open her wallet, producing, inter alia, an over the-counter pill that Marissa claimed was Savana’s. She also denied knowing about the day planner’s contents. Wilson did not ask her when she received the pills from Savana or where Savana might be hiding them. After a search of Marissa’s underwear by Romero and Schwallier revealed no additional pills, Wilson called Savana into his office. He showed her the day planner and confirmed her relationship with Marissa. He knew that the girls had been identified as part of an unusually rowdy group at a school dance, during which alcohol and cigarettes were found in the girls’ bathroom. He had other reasons to connect them with this contraband, for Jordan had told the principal that before the dance, he had attended a party at Savana’s house where alcohol was served. Thus, Marissa’s statement that the pills came from Savana was sufficiently plausible to warrant suspicion that Savana was involved in pill distribution. A student who is reasonably suspected of giving out contraband pills is reasonably suspected of carrying them on her person and in her backpack. Looking into Savana’s bag, in her presence and in the relative privacy of Wilson’s office, was not excessively intrusive, any more than Romero’s subsequent search of her outer clothing.
but that the strip search was not reasonable because the pills were not dangerous and there was no reason to believe that Savana had pills with her at the time or that students hid such things in their underwear. They held that previous court rulings were not clear enough to hold the officials liable. I agree with Justice Ginsburg:
Fellow student Marissa Glines, caught with pills in her pocket, accused Redding of supplying them. App. 13a. Asked where the blue pill among several white pills in Glines’s pocket came from, Glines answered: “I guess it slipped in when she gave me the IBU 400s.” Ibid. Asked next “who is she?”, Glines responded: “Savana Redding.” Ibid. As the Court observes, ante, at 6, 10, no followup questions were asked. Wilson did not test Glines’s accusation for veracity by asking Glines when did Redding give her the pills, where, for what purpose. Any reasonable search for the pills would have ended when inspection of Redding’s backpack and jacket pockets yielded nothing. Wilson had no cause to suspect, based on prior experience at the school or clues in this case, that Redding had hidden pills—containing the equivalent of two Advils or one Aleve—in her underwear or body. To make matters worse, Wilson did not release Redding, to return to class or to go home, after the search. Instead, he made her sit on a chair outside his office for over two hours. At no point did he attempt to call her parent. Abuse of authority of that order should not be shielded by official immunity.
In contrast to T. L. O., where a teacher discovered a student smoking in the lavatory, and where the search was confined to the student’s purse, the search of Redding involved her body and rested on the bare accusation ofanother student whose reliability the Assistant Principal had no reason to trust. The Court’s opinion in T. L. O. plainly stated the controlling Fourth Amendment law: A search ordered by a school official, even if “justified at its inception,” crosses the constitutional boundary if it becomes “excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.” 469 U. S., at 342 (internal quotation marks omitted).
Here, “the nature of the [supposed] infraction,” the slim basis for suspecting Savana Redding, and her “age and sex,” ibid., establish beyond doubt that Assistant Principal Wilson’s order cannot be reconciled with this Court’s opinion in T. L. O. Wilson’s treatment of Redding was abusive and it was not reasonable for him to believe that the law permitted it. I join JUSTICE STEVENS in dissenting from the Court’s acceptance of Wilson’s qualified immunity plea, and would affirm the Court of Appeals’ judgment in all respects.
The only Justice to dissent from the main part of the ruling that the strip search was illegal was Justice Thomas (no surprise) who basically says that officials should never use judgement (Thomas certainly doesn’t seem to know about it, so I suppose I shouldn’t just dismiss the argument). He also believes that school officials should be able to do almost anything they want to keep order (if parents have problems with the actions they can always vote them out or move or send their children to private schools). Basically, he’s from the ‘because I say so’ form of parenting/schooling.