The Supreme Court recently ruled 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 Advil’s. 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.
Officials had searched the girl's backpack and found nothing, Thomas said. "It was eminently reasonable to conclude the backpack was empty because Redding was secreting the pills in a place should thought no one would look," Thomas said.
Thomas warned that the majority's decision could backfire. "Redding would not have been the first person to conceal pills in her undergarments," he said. "Nor will she be the last after today's decision, which announces the safest place to secrete contraband in school."
A schoolmate had accused Redding, then an eighth-grade student, of giving her pills. The school's vice principal, Kerry Wilson, took Redding to his office to search her backpack. When nothing was found, Redding was taken to a nurse's office where she says she was ordered to take off her shirt and pants. Redding said they then told her to move her bra to the side and to stretch her underwear waistband, exposing her breasts and pelvic area. No pills were found.
"Wilson's treatment of Redding was abusive and it was not reasonable for him to believe that the law permitted it," Ginsburg said.
The case is Safford Unified School District v. April Redding, 08-479. I'm thrilled with this decision. I followed this case very closely. So pleased that the Supremes got this one right. Thomas though? What was he thinking?