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U.S. Supreme Court Finds Student "Strip Search" Unconstitutional Unless Specifically Justified

June 26, 2009

The United States Supreme Court decided an important school district case related to student searches on June 25, 2009. This case, styled Safford Unified School District No. 1 v. Redding, involved a 13-year-old public school student who was suspected of possessing and distributing prescription-strength and over-the-counter pain relief pills, which were banned under school rules without advance permission. The student was required to remove her outer clothing and then "pull out" and shake her bra and the elastic band on her underwear in the presence of a female administrator and a female school nurse. The search exposed the student's breasts and pelvic area to some degree. No pills were found in her belongings or on her person. The Supreme Court held that although a search of a student's belongings and outer clothing is justified when the student is reasonably suspected of giving out contraband pills, a search that goes down to exposing the body of a student requires some specific justification in suspected facts indicating a moderate chance that the search will result in the discovery of contraband. The severity of the suspected infraction is also a relevant factor. The Court found that the school officials' belief in the general possibility that students hide contraband in or under their clothing was insufficient to justify the search. Because the school officials lacked a specific reason to suspect that the student was concealing pills in her underwear, and because the nature of the drugs and the small quantity that had been distributed constituted a relatively limited threat, the Court held that the "strip search" was unconstitutional.