Wednesday, July 24, 2013

No Qualified Immunity for Principal who Conducted Suspicionless Strip Search of Student

In Doe v. Champaign Community Unit 4 School Dist., No. 11–CV–3355, 2013 WL 3712350 (Jul. 12, 2013), a student has sued under §§ 1983 and 1981 alleging that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when he was subjected to a strip search at school without reasonable suspicion. The U.S. district court dismissed the student's claims against the school district and the superintendent, but  allowed the claims against the principal to proceed. The case arose when the principal of Champaign, IL's Academic Academy, an alternative school, smelled what she believed was cannabis in a classroom. D.M., a 15-year-old student, was not at school when the principal smelled the cannabis. When D.M. arrived at school, the principal returned to the classroom and ordered only one student, D.M., to come to her office. D.M. was one of only two African–American students in the classroom.

In her office, the principal searched D.M.'s outer clothing and backpack, then had him remove his shirt, unbutton his pants, remove his belt, remove his shoes, and partially disrobe. The principal's action is reminiscent of the strip search of Savana Redding that the Supreme Court found unreasonable in Safford Unified School Dist. No. 1 v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364 (2009). Just as in Redding, the principal did not find any contraband on D.M. during the search. The principal did not contact D.M.'s parents prior to conducting the search.

While the Supreme Court has ruled that high school students have a lessened expectation of privacy, school searches still must be reasonable under Fourth Amendment standards. The Court defined reasonable suspicion in Redding as "a moderate chance of finding evidence of wrongdoing.” The Court applies a two step analysis to gauge the reasonableness of a school search: first, was the search justified at its inception; and second, was the search conducted in a way that was reasonably related to the search's objective. New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985). On the facts presented in D.M.'s case, the principal will face a considerable challenge in justifiying her actions or showing that the search's instrusiveness was reasonable under the circumstances.


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