Thursday, June 25, 2009

Supreme Court Rules in Strip Search Case

The Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision today that the strip search of a 13-year old girl by public school officials was unconstitutional. In the majority opinion, Justice Souter affirmed the circuit court's decision that the girl's Fourth Amendment rights had been violated (see pdf of majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions here).

The 13-year old student, Savana Redding, was accused by a fellow classmate of having several tablets of ibuprofin, an over-the-counter drug banned from school property. After getting the tip from the fellow classmate, vice principal Kerry Wilson searched Redding's backpack and pockets, and then sent her to the nurse where she was required to strip down to her bra and underpants. At no point during or immediately following the search was Redding permitted to call her mother.

While acknowledging that Redding's Fourth Amendment rights were violated, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court's decision to hold vice principal Wilson accountable for the strip search. Souter and six other justices ruled that Wilson and other school officials were immune from legal punishment because past court rulings have been unclear regarding the amount of power that administrators have over students.

Justices Stevens and Ginsburg concurred that Redding's Fourth Amendment rights had been violated by the search, but disagreed with the court's ruling on Wilson's immunity. In her opinion, Justice Ginsburg wrote of Wilson's actions that "abuse of authority of that order should not be shielded by official immunity... Wilson's treatment of Redding was abusive and it was not reasonable for him to believe that the law permitted it."

While it is a victory that the court acknowledged Redding's constitutional rights in this case, it is a shame that no one is being held accountable for the undoubtedly traumatic experience that she endured. The court must clarify its position on students' vs. school officials' rights to ensure that what happened to Savana Redding does not happen again.

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