Supreme Court rules strip-search of 13-year-old illegal

Justices find that school officials violated teen's right to privacy

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Published June 25, 2009 5:26PM (EDT)

In a sane 8-to-1 ruling, the United States Supreme Court decided that school officials in Arizona did not have the right to strip-search a 13-year-old girl for contraband ibuprofen.

The strip-search occurred when Savana Redding, who is now a college student, was an 8th grader at Safford Middle School in the rural Arizona town of Safford. After a search of her backpack produced no banned substances, she was ordered to strip to her underwear.

Acting on a tip from another student, two women searched her for prescription-strength ibuprofen, one pill of which is about the equivalent of two Advil, according to the Associated Press.

Redding was ordered to move her bra to the side, and stretch out her underwear waistband, exposing her breasts and pelvis. The search revealed no pills.

Writing in the majority opinion, Justice David Souter observed that the search did not take into account the relatively mild nature of the contraband at stake: "In sum, what was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana was any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear," he wrote. "We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable."

The Court did find that the school officials would have been justified if they had limited their search to the Redding's backpack and her outer clothing, according to the New York Times. But in searching her bra and panties, the school officials violated her Fourth Amendment rights.

The Court also ruled 7-to-2 that individual school officials should not be held liable for their role in the search. The Court sent the case back to a lower court to determine what, if any, damages the school district should pay Redding.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of two justices who thought that school officials should be held individually liable. She noted that the assistant principal made Redding sit on a chair outside his office for two hours: "At no point did he attempt to call her parent," Ginsburg wrote. "Abuse of authority of that order should not be shielded by official immunity."

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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