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Supreme Court Hears School Strip Search Case

April 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Supreme Court heard arguments in a case about whether Arizona school officials were justified in strip-searching a 13 year-old girl for prescription drugs on another student's tip. The National Law Journal's Marcia Coyle explains the case and its implications for power limits on school officials.
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RAY SUAREZ: The justices were asked today to decide whether officials at an Arizona school went too far when they strip searched an eighth-grader accused of distributing prescription-strength ibuprofen. After the arguments, attorneys for the school and for Savana Redding, the student at the center of the case, spoke to reporters.

ADAM WOLF, attorney for the Redding Family: The school should have and could have taken seriously an accusation that Savana perhaps provided ibuprofen at some unknown time and in an unknown location. But with that and without anything more, to force Savana to take off her shirt and her pants and to rummage on or around her body just went beyond the pale.

MATTHEW WRIGHT, attorney for the school district: You have to remember that school administrators are tasked with the responsibility to care for the kids in their care, custody and control. And they stand much like a parent stands in their stead while they’re at school.

And so, because they have that awesome responsibility, they need the flexibility to act immediately and effectively when they reasonably believe that a child’s health and risk are at issue.

Student and adult rights differ

RAY SUAREZ: Here to walk us through the arguments as always is Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

And, Marcia, we heard the attorneys disagreeing over whether schools ever have a right to strip search students when they're suspected of possessing drugs. Did the school have an absolute prohibition against having even as, in this case, over-the-counter drugs?

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: Yes, it did. And that's not unlike many schools in the country.

RAY SUAREZ: So haven't there been a lot of other cases about student privacy? Wasn't there a lot of precedent here? Haven't students had to go to court over searches of their bags, of their lockers, even urine tests for athletes?

MARCIA COYLE: The Supreme Court has said that students don't check their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door, but the court doesn't provide the same degree of protection under certain constitutional amendments -- here, the Fourth Amendment -- to students that it does to adults.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, and generally it requires a warrant and probable cause before a search is done. But the Supreme Court has held, because school officials are in charge with protecting the health and safety of students, that they don't need probable cause, which is more than just a suspicion or a reasonable suspicion, or a warrant.

If they suspect a student has drugs, all they need is basically a reasonable suspicion that the student has contraband and they can search.

RAY SUAREZ: Savana Redding and her attorney were at the Supreme Court today, but how did they fare in lower courts when this was adjudicated there?

MARCIA COYLE: The main court that the Supreme Court is reviewing in this case is the Ninth Circuit. And the Ninth Circuit said that the strip search here was unconstitutional.

And the second issue is whether, being unconstitutional, do the school officials have immunity from the suit that Savana's mother brought for damages because of the violation of their daughter's rights? And they lost on that, as well.

Standard for intrusive search

RAY SUAREZ: What did the attorney for the school argue?

MARCIA COYLE: The school district is asking the justices for a bright-line rule that gives them as much flexibility as possible. The school district's lawyer said what we need is, if a school official has a reasonable suspicion that a student possesses drugs, then any search where that drug or contraband may reasonably be is constitutional.

And this didn't go over totally well with some justices. For example, Justice Scalia asked: well, under that theory, you could justify searches of body cavities. And the school district's lawyer said -- well, he didn't really answer the question directly, but he said school officials aren't clinically trained to do those kinds of searches.

And this led Justice Souter to came back and say, But on the legal argument you're making, you could justify a body cavity search? And the school district's attorney said, Yes, but it would be constrained by how the local community feels.

RAY SUAREZ: What did Savana Redding's attorneys argue?

MARCIA COYLE: Her attorney's argument was very much like the United States' government argument. The United States came in here to argue in the case, and they both said that, for a strip search -- and, by the way, this is the first time the Supreme Court has faced a strip search of a student under a Fourth Amendment challenge.

But they claim, the government and her attorney, claim that, for a strip search, you need more than a reasonable suspicion that the student has drugs and the ability to search wherever those drugs may reasonably be.

This is a very intrusive search. Studies have shown that, particularly with teenagers, it causes trauma and long-lasting damage. So they argued what the Supreme Court needs to say here is that you have to have a reasonable suspicion that the contraband is located in the underwear, basically, or in the underpants.

Searching everywhere else first

RAY SUAREZ: Was there any distinction made between cocaine, marijuana, heroin, what are classified in law as serious drugs, versus the active ingredient in Advil and Motrin?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes. Justice Kennedy asked the school district's lawyer, Does it make a difference if the drug is heroin or meth?

And, again, Ms. Redding's attorney said, you have to have -- you have to reasonably believe that the drug is located under the clothes.

This also prompted a hypothetical by Justice Souter, who said, Well, what if you have a reasonable suspicion that the student has drugs and, if you don't get those drugs, there is a risk of violent illness or death? Isn't a strip search then justified?

And, again, the attorney said, No, you have to believe that the drug is under the -- you have to have a reasonable belief the drugs are under the clothes.

And Justice Souter said, Oh, so then it's better to risk death than embarrassment?

And the attorney said, Well, no, but after you've searched everywhere -- which wasn't done here -- the school officials didn't search the student's desk, didn't search her locker. They went from her backpack to a strip search. But after you've search everywhere, he said, you may have generated a reasonable suspicion that the drugs are under her clothes.

Balancing safety against rights

RAY SUAREZ: And very quickly, you mentioned the request for a bright-line ruling. Does it look like the Supreme Court will make law in this case that will govern schools across the country?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, absolutely, I think it will. I think it's a very difficult case for the court, because they have to balance safety, health of students versus the privacy interests of students.

RAY SUAREZ: Marcia Coyle, thanks a lot.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Ray.