Skip to main content

Search and Seizure: Strip Search of Junior High Girl for Drugs Unconstitutional, Supreme Court Rules

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #591)
Politics & Advocacy

The US Supreme Court ruled Thursday that school officials who strip searched a 13-year-old Arizona school girl based on an uncorroborated accusation by a classmate that she had previously possessed ibuprofen violated the Fourth Amendments proscription against unwarranted searches and seizures. The ruling came in Safford Unified School District v. Redding.

Savana Redding (from
Savana Redding, an eighth grade honor roll student at Safford Middle School in Safford, Arizona, was pulled from class on October 8, 2003 by the school's vice principal, Kerry Wilson. Earlier that day, Wilson had discovered prescription-strength ibuprofen -- 400 milligram pills equivalent to two over-the-counter ibuprofen pills, such as Advil -- in the possession of Redding's classmate. Under questioning and faced with punishment, the classmate claimed that Redding, who had no history of disciplinary problems, had given her the pills.

After escorting Redding to his office, Wilson demanded that she consent to a search of her possessions. Redding agreed, wanting to prove she had nothing to hide. Wilson did not inform Redding of the reason for the search. Joined by a female school administrative assistant, Wilson searched Redding's backpack and found nothing. Instructed by Wilson, the administrative assistant then took Redding to the school nurse's office in order to perform a strip search.

In the school nurse's office, Redding was ordered to strip to her underwear. She was then commanded to pull her bra out and to the side, exposing her breasts, and to pull her underwear out at the crotch, exposing her pelvic area. The strip search failed to uncover any ibuprofen pills.

"The strip search was the most humiliating experience I have ever had," said Redding in a sworn affidavit following the incident. "I held my head down so that they could not see that I was about to cry."

Redding had won in the lower courts, and the school district appealed to the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which also found the strip search to be unconstitutional. "It does not take a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a 13-year-old child is an invasion of her constitutional rights," Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote for the majority.

A six-judge majority of the appeals court further held that, since the strip search was clearly unreasonable, the school official who ordered the search is not entitled to immunity. But in its decision, the Supreme Court found that the school officials involved are immune from liability. The decision leaves open the possibility, however, that the Safford Unified School District could be held liable.

"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," wrote Justice David Souter for the 8-1 majority. Justice Clarence Thomas was the sole dissenter.

"We are pleased that the Supreme Court recognized that school officials had no reason to strip search Savana Redding and that the decision to do so was unconstitutional," said Adam Wolf, an attorney with the ACLU who argued the case before the Court. "Today's ruling affirms that schools are not constitutional dead zones. While we are disappointed with the Court's conclusion that the law was not clear before today and therefore school officials were not found liable, at least other students will not have to go through what Savana experienced."

"Neither the Constitution nor common sense permits school officials to treat a strip search the same as a locker or backpack search," said Steven R. Shapiro, the ACLU's national Legal Director. "Today's ruling eliminates any confusion that school officials may have had about this seemingly obvious point."

"This is a victory not just for Savana, but for all public school students and parents across the country," said Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "After today's ruling, a parent can send their son or daughter to school without having to fear that he or she will be subject to an unreasonable strip search by school officials hell-bent on fighting a drug war rather than considering the best interests of the child."

"It's good to see that even the Roberts court recognizes when zero tolerance policies grounded in drug war hysteria go beyond the dictates of reason and the Constitution," said DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


rita (not verified)

Sure, the court ruled that this search was wrong -- but ONLY THIS search. They left the perverts who perpetrated this outrage in power and completely unaccountable for their actions. Which means the abuses will continue. The ACLU is calling this a "victory," but they know as well as we do that, had any trace of illegal drugs been found, this case would never have made it to the state supreme court, much less to the federal level. In fact, if any trace of any illegal substance had been found, the ACLU would never have gotten involved. Illegal drugs are found only AFTER the abuses, the violations and the shootings.

Once again, the Supreme Court has failed to protect our rights and the ACLU has failed to notice.

Thu, 07/02/2009 - 2:25pm Permalink

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.