Administrators at an Arizona middle school violated the privacy rights of a 13-year-old girl when they strip-searched her in a fruitless attempt to find prescription drugs, the US Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
In an 8 to 1 decision, the justices said the strip search of Savana Redding, an eighth-grade honors student, was an unconstitutional invasion of the girl's personal privacy.
But the court also ruled, 7 to 2, that since this area of the law was not clearly defined, the assistant principal who ordered the strip search was protected by qualified immunity and could not be sued personally for damages.
In the majority opinion, Justice David Souter acknowledged the strip search was "embarrassing, frightening, and humiliating" for Savana. He said school officials violated her Fourth Amendment rights because they had no reasonable expectation of actually finding drugs in the girl's underpants.
But he added: "We mean to cast no ill reflection on the assistant principal, for the record raises no doubt that his motive throughout was to eliminate drugs from his school and protect students."
Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg strongly disagreed with the conclusion on qualified immunity. They said they did not believe Assistant Principal Kerry Wilson should be granted immunity.
"It does not require a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a 13-year-old child is an invasion of constitutional rights of some magnitude," wrote Justice Stevens. "This is … a case in which clearly established law meets clearly outrageous conduct."
The decision is important because it sets a national standard for how far school officials can go in conducting searches of students' property – and even their bodies – while investigating alleged violations of school policies and rules.
In 1985, the high court authorized school officials to search student backpacks and purses when they had reasonable grounds to suspect the search would turn up contraband.
The justices then had said the search must not be "excessively intrusive in light of the student's age and sex and the nature of the infraction."
In clarifying that ruling on Thursday, Souter said school officials must have a reasonable suspicion of the presence of dangerous contraband or information that contraband is hidden in a student's underwear before "a search can reasonably make the quantum leap from outer clothes and backpacks to exposure of intimate parts."
In Savana's case, "the content of suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion," Souter said.
In a lone dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said he would uphold the strip search.
The case, Safford Unified School District No. 1 v. April Redding, arises from a strip search conducted in October 2003 at Safford Middle School. The girl, Savana Redding, was suspected of bringing high-strength ibuprofen to school to share with other students during lunch period.
Under questioning, one of Ms. Redding's friends identified her as the source of the prescription drugs.
Redding denied any involvement or knowledge of the prescription drugs. A school official searched her backpack and found nothing improper. He then instructed a female staff member to take Redding to the school nurse's office for a more thorough search.