(CN) – Arizona school officials violated a teen’s Fourth Amendment right by searching her bra and underwear for prescription-strength Ibuprofen that she allegedly gave to classmates, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday. “Because there were no reasons to suspect the drugs presented a danger or were concealed in her underwear, we hold that the search did violate the Constitution,” Justice Souter wrote in the 8-1 opinion.
However, the high court cleared the assistant principal who ordered the strip search of liability, because the student’s right was not clearly established at the time of the search.
Kerry Wilson, assistant principal of Safford Middle School in eastern Arizona, called 13-year-old Savana Redding to his office in October 2003 to question her about various pills in another student’s possession, including what turned out to be prescription-strength Ibuprofen and the over-the-counter painkiller Naproxen. Wilson told Redding he’d heard that she was giving these pills to fellow students.
Redding denied it, and allowed Wilson to search her backpack with the help of administrative assistant Helen Romero. Wilson then sent Redding to the school nurse for a strip search, where Redding was asked to remove her outer clothing, and to shake her bra and the elastic of her underwear. No pills were found. Redding described the search as embarrassing, frightening and humiliating.
Redding’s mother sued the school district and school officials, claiming the unreasonable strip search violated her daughter’s Fourth Amendment right.
The district court granted the officials qualified immunity, and a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit affirmed. But after a rehearing before the full 9th Circuit, the judges determined that Wilson was not entitled to qualified immunity, though the nurse and assistant were.
Redding’s attorney, Adam Wolf, argued before the Supreme Court that the strip search wasn’t justified, as officials lacked reasonable suspicion that Redding was hiding contraband in her underwear.
Justice David Souter, writing for the majority, said the strip search crossed a line that the search of Redding’s backpack and outer clothing didn’t cross.
“If Wilson’s reasonable suspicion of pill distribution were not understood to support searches of outer clothes and backpack, it would not justify any search worth making,” Souter said.
But the strip search went too far, the majority ruled. “Here, the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion,” Souter said.
“In sum, what was missing … was any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear,” Souter wrote. “We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable.”
Although the search violated the Fourth Amendment, the school officials, including Wilson, are entitled to qualified immunity, the justices ruled.
The high court remanded to resolve the issue of the school district’s liability, which the 9th Circuit did not address.
Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from the portion of the ruling granting Wilson immunity.
“Abuse of authority of that order should not be shielded by official immunity,” Ginsburg wrote.
Justice Clarence Thomas disagreed with the other half of the majority’s opinion: that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. He called Souter’s ruling on this claim a “deep intrusion into the administration of public schools.”