Safford v. Redding

557 U.S. 364, 129 S. Ct. 2633 (2009)



The United States Supreme Court has recognized that the school setting requires some modification of the level of suspicion of illicit activity needed to justify a search. The public interest is best served by a Fourth Amendment standard of reasonableness that stops short of probable cause. The Court has thus applied a standard of reasonable suspicion to determine the legality of a school administrator's search of a student, and has held that a school search will be permissible in its scope when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction. 


After escorting 13-year-old Savana Redding from her middle school classroom to his office, Assistant Principal Wilson showed her a day planner containing knives and other contraband. She admitted owning the planner, but said that she had lent it to her friend Marissa and that the contraband was not hers. He then produced four prescription-strength, and one over-the-counter, pain relief pills, all of which are banned under school rules without advance permission. She denied knowledge of them, but Wilson said that he had a report that she was giving pills to fellow students. She denied it and agreed to let him search her belongings. He and Helen Romero, an administrative assistant, searched Savana's backpack, finding nothing. Wilson then had Romero take Savana to the school nurse's office to search her clothes for pills. After Romero and the nurse, Peggy Schwallier, had Savana remove her outer clothing, they told her to pull her bra out and shake it, and to pull out the elastic on her underpants, thus exposing her breasts and pelvic area to some degree. No pills were found. Savana's mother filed suit against petitioner school district (Safford), Wilson, Romero, and Schwallier, alleging that the strip search violated Savana's Fourth Amendment rights. Claiming qualified immunity, the individuals (hereinafter petitioners) moved for summary judgment. The District Court granted the motion, finding that there was no Fourth Amendment violation, and the en banc Ninth Circuit reversed. Following the protocol for evaluating qualified immunity claims, the court held that the strip search was unjustified under the Fourth Amendment test for searches of children by school officials. It then applied the test for qualified immunity. Finding that Savana's right was clearly established at the time of the search, it reversed the summary judgment as to Wilson, but affirmed as to Schwallier and Romero because they were not independent decisionmakers.


Whether a 13-year-old student's Fourth Amendment right was violated when she was subjected to a search of her bra and underpants by school officials acting on reasonable suspicion that she had brought forbidden prescription and over-the-counter drugs to school. 




The indignity of the search does not, of course, outlaw it, but it does implicate the rule of reasonableness that the search as actually conducted be reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place. The scope will be permissible, that is, when it is "not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction." Here, the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion. Wilson knew beforehand that the pills were prescription-strength ibuprofen and over-the-counter naproxen, common pain relievers  equivalent to two Advil, or one Aleve.4 He must have been aware of the nature and limited threat of the specific drugs he was searching for, and while just about anything can be taken in quantities that will do real harm, Wilson had no reason to suspect that large amounts of the drugs were being passed around, or that individual students were receiving great numbers of pills. 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. We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable. Thus, because there were no reasons to suspect the drugs presented a danger or were concealed in her underwear, the Court here held that the search did violate the Constitution, but since there is reason to question the clarity with which the right was established, the official who ordered the unconstitutional search is entitled to qualified immunity from liability.

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