Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Pat-Down of Students Entering Prom Found Unconstitutional

In the Spring of 2011, Capital High School in Santa Fe, New Mexico, subjected students entering the high school prom to random, suspicionless pat-downs.  The goal of the searches were to prevent students from bringing drugs, alcohol, or other contraband to the prom.  One of the students testified that:

[The ASI New Mexico security guard] had me spread my arms and legs out, and she patted along my arms, touched along the waist. And then she grabbed the outer part of my bra and moved it here. And then she grabbed the inner part of my bra and moved it here. And then she cupped my breasts and shook them.... [T]hen afterwards she moved down to my waist and then she went all the way down my leg. And then she felt over my dress and then she pulled the dress up to about mid-thigh and she felt up the bare leg, as well.

Other students testified similarly. Four students brought suit against the school district and the principal.  In its latest opinion, the district court in Herrera v. Santa Fe Public Schools, 956 F.Supp.2d 1191 (D. New Mexico 2013), held that search violated students' rights, but the principal was entitled to qualified immunity.  

The school had attempted to extend the rationale of  Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995), and Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822 (2002)-which upheld suspicionless drug testing of students participating in sports and extracurriculars--to these pat-down searches.  The district court reasoned that those cases were inapposite because they involved a special needs exception to the general reasonable suspicion requirement in schools.  Moreover, the searches in those cases applied to a subsection of the student body, whereas the prom search potentially applied to any student in the school.  Applying the reasonable suspicion test from New Jersey v. TLO, the court easily found it lacking and the searches unconstitutional.  In an earlier opinion, the court had also catalogued other lower courts applying similar rationales to suspicionless searches.  See Herrera v. Santa Fe Public Schools, 792 F.Supp.2d 1174 (D.N.M. 2011).  This earlier opinion was particularly revealing in showing that several recent courts have pushed back against random student searches.

The school district had also argued that the students consented to the searches, but the court applied the unconstitutional conditions doctrine to find that consent was invalid.


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