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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Liptak Previews Strip Search Case

Savana Redding still remembers the clothes she had on — black stretch pants with butterfly patches and a pink T-shirt — the day school officials here forced her to strip six years ago. She was 13 and in eighth grade.

An assistant principal, enforcing the school’s antidrug policies, suspected her of having brought prescription-strength ibuprofen pills to school. One of the pills is as strong as two Advils.

The search by two female school employees was methodical and humiliating, Ms. Redding said. After she had stripped to her underwear, “they asked me to pull out my bra and move it from side to side,” she said. “They made me open my legs and pull out my underwear.”

Ms. Redding, an honors student, had no pills. But she had a furious mother and a lawyer, and now her case has reached the Supreme Court, which will hear arguments on April 21.

The case will require the justices to consider the thorny question of just how much leeway school officials should have in policing zero-tolerance policies for drugs and violence, and the court is likely to provide important guidance to schools around the nation.

In Ms. Redding’s case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled that school officials had violated the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches. Writing for the majority, Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw said, “It does not require a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a 13-year-old child is an invasion of constitutional rights.”

“More than that,” Judge Wardlaw added, “it is a violation of any known principle of human dignity.”

Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, dissenting, said the case was in some ways “a close call,” given the “humiliation and degradation” involved. But, Judge Hawkins concluded, “I do not think it was unreasonable for school officials, acting in good faith, to conduct the search in an effort to obviate a potential threat to the health and safety of their students.”

Richard Arum, who teaches sociology and education at New York University, said he would have handled the incident differently. But Professor Arum said the Supreme Court should proceed cautiously.

“Do we really want to encourage cases,” Professor Arum asked, “where students and parents are seeking monetary damages against educators in such school-specific matters where reasonable people can disagree about what is appropriate under the circumstances?”

The Supreme Court’s last major decision on school searches based on individual suspicion — as opposed to systematic drug testing programs — was in 1985, when it allowed school officials to search a student’s purse without a warrant or probable cause as long their suspicions were reasonable. It did not address intimate searches.

In a friend-of-the-court brief in Ms. Redding’s case, the federal government said the search of her was unreasonable because officials had no reason to believe she was “carrying the pills inside her undergarments, attached to her nude body, or anywhere else that a strip search would reveal.”

Read full article here. [Brooks Holland]

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/crimprof_blog/2009/03/liptak-previews-strip-search-case.html

Criminal Justice Policy, Criminal Law, Search and Seizure, Supreme Court | Permalink

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