In a decision released today, the Supreme Court seemed to acknowledge that early adolescence is an awkward time during which individuals deserve a little more protection under the Fourth Amendment from certain kinds of searches.
The Court ruled in Safford Unified Sch. Dist. No. 1. v. Redding that a search at a school requiring a 13 year-old girl to "pull her bra out and to the side and shake it, and to pull out the
elastic on her underpants, thus exposing her breasts and pelvic area to
some degree" was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The Court's opinion, authored by Justice Souter, stated that the level of suspicion that the girl had prohibited items was insufficient to justify such an intrusive search. The search of the girl's backpack and outer clothing did not run afoul
of the Fourth Amendment according to Justice Souter and the Court,
Justice Souter stated that the search violated the
subjective and reasonable societal expectations of privacy, and pointed
to the "adolescent vulnerability" of young people as supporting the
reasonableness of the expectation of privacy in this instance.
Court also based its finding on the fact that the prohibited items in
question, prescription-strength Ibuprofen, did not constitute dangerous
items. Since the items weren't dangerous, Justice Souter reasoned, the
administrators' general belief that students hide contraband in their
underwear did not rise to the level of suspicion necessary to justify
such an extreme intrusion into the girl's privacy. As Justice Souter
writes, "general background possibilities fall short; a reasonable
search that extensive calls for suspicion that it will pay off."
logic leaves the question open as to whether the court would find the
search reasonable under the Fourth Amendment if the object was
considered dangerous. Justice Souter seems to leave some hints
suggesting that the search might have been reasonable if dangerous
narcotics were involved, and if the administrators had a specific
suspicion that the student was hiding them in her underwear:
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.
the Court found that the search violated the Constitution, it also
determined that the school administrators who conducted the search were
entitled to qualified immunity. Under Supreme Court precedent, school
officials are "entitled to qualified immunity where clearly established
law does not show that the search violated the Fourth Amendment."
Because courts have interpreted the law surrounding school searches in
different ways, the Court held that the law was not "clearly
established," and thus the officials were immune from the lawsuit.
The court remanded the case for a determination of whether the school district was liable, however.
See Also: Strip Search for Ibuprofen Ruled Unconstitutional, More (WSJ Law Blog) Analysis: Some expansion of student privacy (SCOTUSblog)