Advil Strip Search Illegal, Says Supreme Court

The Supreme Court sided with a 13-year-old honor student suspended after she was strip searched for Advil.

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a school’s strip search of an Arizona teenage girl accused of having prescription-strength ibuprofen was illegal.

In an 8-1 ruling, the justices said school officials violated the law with their search of Savana Redding in the rural eastern Arizona town of Safford.

Redding, who now attends college, was 13 when officials at Safford Middle School ordered her to remove her clothes and shake out her underwear because they were looking for pills — the equivalent of two Advils. The district bans prescription and over-the-counter drugs and the school was acting on a tip from another student.

“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,” Justice David Souter wrote in the majority opinion. “We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable.”

In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas found the search legal and said the court previously had given school officials “considerable leeway” under the Fourth Amendment in school settings.

Thomas is right as to the precedents but 1) more recent case law has considerably weakened the power of school officials while recognizing that students have some rights and 2) Thomas is the Justice least inclined to follow precedent when he believes it violates the Constitution.

A couple months back, John Cole‘s statement that “I can state that as someone with an IQ over room temperature, the fact that we are debating whether it is appropriate for school authorities to strip search kids is a sure sign that something has gone horribly, horribly wrong with this country and our sense of perspective, and I blame the war on drugs” was awarded Quote of the Day honors.  And, indeed, as Steve Verdon pointed out, the oral arguments gave the impression that the Court was likely to allow rummaging through underage girls’ panties stand.   Justice Scalia certainly played the Devil’s Advocate (Advilcate?) well.

Thankfully, the Justices correctly realized this was a slam dunk. They say justice delayed is justice denied and, certainly, that holds true in this case.  There’s some satisfaction of being vindicated six years down the road but, obviously, the effects of the suspension and the humiliation of the search can’t be undone.  Of course, this ruling should make getting compensatory damages in a civil suit easier.

Photo via JustGetThere

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Alex Knapp says:

    I admit I had to rub my eyes and re-read this a couple of times. The Supreme Court ruled in a manner consistent with the Fourth Amendment? Good lord, when I get home I’m going to expect to see my dog to be playing cards with the rabbits instead of chasing them around….

  2. Billy says:

    I’m shocked that the justices actually came to a reasonable conclusion here.

    Of course, this ruling should make getting compensatory damages in a civil suit easier

    Only down the line, but it’s something. The magic words are “clearly established,” as in “was the right clearly established?” when it was violated. The court here answered that question in the negative, at least prior to this ruling. However, down the road, it will be hard for school officials to argue that the students’ right not to have their underwear removed while searching for advil wasn’t clearly established.

  3. JKB says:

    Your correct that this ruling will do little to provide justice to Savanah Redding but sometimes simply having your abuse acknowledged can help a person put it behind them. The fact that his case was pursued to the SCOTUS is an indication that she wanted someone to say it is not acceptable for the pervy bureaucrats to use the color of law to strip, humiliate and shake out a young girls panties. I’m sure the school officials had no prurient interest in abusing this girl but that his what they did by failing to use good judgement and consider the harm to their student.

  4. It’s a slippery slope. Next time it could be Excedrin.

    People need to understand that serious drug use like this can occur as often as every 28 days in young women.

  5. just me says:

    I think this was the right decision, and while I could maybe see an invasive search for a gun or other immediately threatening weapon, advil poses very little threat to the student body even if she had a whole bottle of it hidden in her underwear (and what teenager actually thinks to hide advil in their underwear it isn’t like it is an illegal drug?).

  6. DavidL says:

    I find it amusing that while the federal constitution leaves police powers to the several states, the Supreme Court sees fit to define, often in exacting detail, the limits of the police powers, never mentioned by the Constitution.

    Maybe instead of searching fourteen year olds for drugs, we should be searching the justices?

  7. PD Shaw says:

    It’s not clear to me that it’s a victory because no damages were awarded. The Court held that “clearly established law does not show that the search violated the Fourth Amendment.”

    My brief glance through the case suggests that the law remains unclear, but an intrusive search will be impermissible depending on age, gender, level of risk, level of suspicion, degree of intrusion, and novelty of the circumstances.

    This is the type of issue best left to legislation.

  8. sam says:

    I find it amusing that while the federal constitution leaves police powers to the several states, the Supreme Court sees fit to define, often in exacting detail, the limits of the police powers, never mentioned by the Constitution.

    Yeah, really nasty thing that Fourth Amendment. How’re you on no-knock warrants and wrong addresses? You cool with that?

  9. sam says:

    Eh, PD, the Court held the search of her underwear did violate her Fourth Amendment rights.

  10. sam says:

    Here’s the opinion. Well, actually, it’s what they call a “syllabus.” See the note at the top.

  11. PD Shaw says:

    sam, there were two issues:

    1. Was the search unreasonable? The court said yes, based upon all of the circumstances the search violated the Fourth Amendment.

    2. Was the search clearly unreasonable? The court said no, the law is too unclear and consequently, no damages were awarded.

  12. PD Shaw says:

    BTW/ This quote was taken from the opinion:

    “clearly established law does not show that the search violated the Fourth Amendment.”

  13. Steve Verdon says:

    Might want to hold off on the enthusiasm…they ruled so that school officials can still rummage through underage teenage girls panties so long as they are looking for illegal drugs.

    Of course, if a parent were to do that, and really be looking for drugs, why they’d be arrested and rail roaded into jail (McMartin pre-school anyone?).

    Oh and the officials in question are exempt from punishment. So…Memo to Perverts: Become a school official and rummage through all the underwear of children you want looking for illegal drugs. Good thing we give the pedophiles legal cover.

  14. PD Shaw says:

    Steve Verdon, even if the court had ruled that a school may never conduct a strip search, it would have had no bearing on non-governmental actors like private schools, religious organizations, scouting associations, etc.

    That raises a huge flag to me about the limitations of having courts decide these issues on constitutional grounds.

  15. Steve Verdon says:

    Good point PD.

    Revised Memo to Perverts: Become a PUBLIC school official so you can rummage through children’s underwear all you want.

    And people might think I’m being sarcastic…well I am, but and this is a huge but…the school’s attorney actually argued there is no legal barrier to doing body cavity searches.

    Enroll your child in public school and you give permission for a school official to insert a gloved finger into his or her anus, and her vagina. I think that for most parent’s here the response, and it is a proper response IMO, would be to tear the head off any such school official who did such a thing.

  16. PD Shaw says:

    Steve, maybe I didn’t communicate my point. There are more protections against strip searches today in public schools than private schools.

    If this had happened in a typical private school, the parents would have the choice of changing schools or lobbying for better policies. In public schools they have the same options, plus they can seek judicial intervention under the Constitution.

    From the opinion:

    Parents are known to overreact to protect their children from danger, and a school official with responsibility for safety may tend to do the same. The difference is that the Fourth Amendment places limits on the official…

  17. anjin-san says:

    I am still amazed that the father did not take a baseball bat to the school officials in question.

  18. An Interested Party says:

    I am still amazed that anyone actually thinks that strip searches of school children is reasonable…do drugs frighten some people that much…

  19. PD Shaw says:

    Last time this came up, I pointed out this is California law:

    No school employee shall conduct a search that involves:
    (a) Conducting a body cavity search of a pupil manually or with an instrument.
    (b) Removing or arranging any or all of the clothing of a pupil to permit a visual inspection of the underclothing, breast, buttocks, or genitalia of the pupil.

    Again, I ask, is that so hard to write?

    What’s nice about such a law is that the school can’t be sued for failing to do these things when a student gets injured.

  20. Steve Verdon says:

    Parents are known to overreact to protect their children from danger, and a school official with responsibility for safety may tend to do the same. The difference is that the Fourth Amendment places limits on the official…

    Sure didn’t work in this case.

    And I’m skeptical of the claim about private vs. public. Seriously, if I called the cops because the principal at a private school strip searched my child including viewing his unclothed pelvic area the response would be: switch schools or get the policies changed? I’m thinking that is the least likely response.

    Here’s a serious non-snide question:

    1. How frequent are strip searches at public schools.
    2. How frequent are strip searches at private schools.

  21. DL says:

    I was most pleased when the school principal called in the cops because my six year old grandson had a small plastic table knife in his lunch box to cut his sausage for lunch. They allow these people to vote also which explains a lot about today’s government.

  22. PD Shaw says:

    And I’m skeptical of the claim about private vs. public. Seriously, if I called the cops because the principal at a private school strip searched my child….

    Steve, you seem to think a crime has been committed. It is not a crime for a doctor, a school administrator, a p.e. teacher or a parent to order a child to strip unless there is evidence of some sort of lascivious intent. The SCOTUS in this case said there was no doubt in the record that the school administrators were motivated solely to protect students from drugs and getting sick.

    The only reason this was in the courts is that public schools are state actors and thus subject to notions of limited government. That means that a Catholic school can ban t-shirts that promote drugs and spanks students, without wondering about the application of the First and Eighth Amendments, or litigation from them.

    I just find the outrage to be largely misdirected into the court system unless people believe it’s no problem for private schools to do this.

  23. just me says:

    PD I actually agree with you that the best place to detail what is and isn’t acceptable for school officials when searching for drugs or weapons is best handled in the legislature. If the legislature says it isn’t okay and defines the parameters of when, where, and how far a search can be conducted, then constitutionality doesn’t matter-the actual law does, which is the best place to make sure teenage girls are protected from having their panties searched.

    That said, I aboslutely agree with the opinion that advil is not a good reason to look through panties, although I am not convinced any drug is a good reason to search under a person’s clothes.

  24. PD Shaw says:

    My previous comment (at 02:43 pm), should stand corrected. There is a third issue, which is whether the school district (as opposed to any individuals) are liable for damage. As I follow the discussion at Volokh, I guess the answer is: who knows?

    (Have I mentioned how I hate rules of financial responsibility based upon emerging, unpredictable principles?)

  25. davod says:

    “No school employee shall conduct a search that involves:
    (a) Conducting a body cavity search of a pupil manually or with an instrument.
    (b) Removing or arranging any or all of the clothing of a pupil to permit a visual inspection of the underclothing, breast, buttocks, or genitalia of the pupil.”

    If this is California law, how did the courts decide against the family until the case reached the SCOTUS.

  26. just me says:


    If this is California law, how did the courts decide against the family until the case reached the SCOTUS.

    Because the incident in question occurred in Arizona, and I assume that there wasn’t as clear a definition of what was and wasn’t okay as California’s.

  27. davod says:

    “Because the incident in question occurred in Arizona, and I assume that there wasn’t as clear a definition of what was and wasn’t okay as California’s.”

    Sorry.