Criminal Procedure
Theory and Practice

Second Edition

by Jefferson L. Ingram


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Chapter 8 Update 8.15

Special Needs Searches

Significance of the Case: When public school officials possess reasonable suspicion that a student may have brought prohibited drugs to school, the student's possessions and outer clothing may be searched based on reasonable suspicion, but a strip search is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment when there is no indication that drugs were hidden in intimate areas and when there was no indication that the drugs posed a danger to students, either by their type or quantity.

Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding

Supreme Court of the United States

___ U.S. ___, 2009 U.S. LEXIS 4735 (2009)


Prior to a search of 13-year-old middle school student, Savana Redding's possessions and person, the principal of the middle school, Wilson, showed Redding a day planner that had been unzipped and opened flat on the principal's desk. In the day planner were several knives, lighters, a permanent marker, and a cigarette. When Wilson asked Redding whether the planner was hers, she indicated that it was, but that a few days before she had lent it to her friend, Marissa Glines. Savana Redding declared that none of the items in the planner belonged to her. The principal showed Redding four prescription-strength ibuprofen pills and one over the counter pain pill and asked if Redding knew anything about the pills. She denied any knowledge despite Principal Wilson's suggestion that he had reports that Redding was distributing pills to fellow students. Wilson knew about another student's accusing statement that Redding had distributed forbidden prescription and over-the-counter pain relievers and such knowledge was sufficiently plausible to warrant suspicion that Redding might be giving out pills. Principal Wilson's suspicion was enough to justify a search of Savana's backpack and outer clothing. Redding consented to a search of her belongings in the presence of a female administrative assistant. Nothing was found.

At this point, Redding was subjected to a strip search under the suspicion that she was involved in pill distribution. In a private room and not in the presence of Principal Wilson, the school's female nurse had Redding remover her clothing and told her to pull her bra out to the side and shake it and to pull the elastic on her panties out, resulting in some breast and private area exposure. No pills were found.

The student's mother filed suit against petitioners, a school district, a principal, an assistant, and a nurse, alleging that a strip search violated the student's Fourth Amendment rights. Claiming qualified immunity, the principal, the assistant, and the nurse moved for summary judgment. The motion was granted. Initially, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court, but in an en banc rehearing decision, reinstated the suit against Principal Wilson because he was the decision-maker in initiating the strip search. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Procedural Issue:

Does a search of a 13-year-old student's bra and panties by school officials acting on reasonable suspicion that the student had brought forbidden drugs to school, when there was no reasonable suspicion that the drugs were hidden in her underwear and that there was no indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, violate the Fourth Amendment rights of the student?

Held: Yes.


Justice Souter delivered the opinion of the Court.

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[The Fourth Amendment requires that a government agent have probable cause prior to conducting a search.] "Probable cause exists where 'the facts and circumstances within [an officer's] knowledge and of which [he] had reasonably trustworthy information [are] sufficient in themselves to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that' an offense has been or is being committed," Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160 (1949) (quoting Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 162 (1925)), and that evidence bearing on that offense will be found in the place to be searched.

In [New Jersey v.] T. L. O., [ a public school child search case] we recognized that the school setting "requires some modification of the level of suspicion of illicit activity needed to justify a search," 469 U.S., at 340, and held that for searches by school officials "a careful balancing of governmental and private interests suggests that the public interest is best served by a Fourth Amendment standard of reasonableness that stops short of probable cause," id., at 341. We have thus applied a standard of reasonable suspicion to determine the legality of a school administrator's search of a student, id., at 342, 345, and have held that a school search "will be permissible in its scope when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction," id., at 342.

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[Under the facts of this case and based on the level of suspicion possessed by Principal Wilson, sufficient evidence was in the hands of Principal Wilson ] * * * to justify a search of Savana's backpack and outer clothing. If a student is reasonably suspected of giving out contraband pills, she is reasonably suspected of carrying them on her person and in the carryall that has become an item of student uniform in most places today. If Wilson's reasonable suspicion of pill distribution were not understood to support searches of outer clothes and backpack, it would not justify any search worth making. And the look into Savana's bag, in her presence and in the relative privacy of Wilson's office, was not excessively intrusive, any more than Romero's subsequent search of her outer clothing.


Here it is that the parties part company, with Savana's claim that extending the search at Wilson's behest to the point of making her pull out her underwear was constitutionally unreasonable. The exact label for this final step in the intrusion is not important, though strip search is a fair way to speak of it. Romero [a female administrative assistant] and Schwallier [a female nurse] directed Savana to remove her clothes down to her underwear, and then "pull out" her bra and the elastic band on her underpants. Id., at 23a. Although Romero and Schwallier stated that they did not see anything when Savana followed their instructions, App. to Pet. for Cert. 135a, we would not define strip search and its Fourth Amendment consequences in a way that would guarantee litigation about who was looking and how much was seen. The very fact of Savana's pulling her underwear away from her body in the presence of the two officials who were able to see her necessarily exposed her breasts and pelvic area to some degree, and both subjective and reasonable societal expectations of personal privacy support the treatment of such a search as categorically distinct, requiring distinct elements of justification on the part of school authorities for going beyond a search of outer clothing and belongings.

Savana's subjective expectation of privacy against such a search is inherent in her account of it as embarrassing, frightening, and humiliating. The reasonableness of her expectation (required by the Fourth Amendment standard) is indicated by the consistent experiences of other young people similarly searched, whose adolescent vulnerability intensifies the patent intrusiveness of the exposure. See Brief for National Association of Social Workers et al. as Amici Curiae 6-14; Hyman & Perone, The Other Side of School Violence: Educator Policies and Practices that may Contribute to Student Misbehavior, 36 J. School Psychology 7, 13 (1998) (strip search can "result in serious emotional damage"). The common reaction of these adolescents simply registers the obviously different meaning of a search exposing the body from the experience of nakedness or near undress in other school circumstances. Changing for gym is getting ready for play; exposing for a search is responding to an accusation reserved for suspected wrongdoers and fairly understood as so degrading that a number of communities have decided that strip searches in schools are never reasonable and have banned them no matter what the facts may be, see, e.g., New York City Dept. of Education, Reg. No. A-432, p. 2 (2005), online at ("Under no circumstances shall a strip-search of a student be conducted").

The indignity of the search does not, of course, outlaw it, but it does implicate the rule of reasonableness as stated in T. L. O., that "the search as actually conducted [be] reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place." 469 U.S., at 341). The scope will be permissible, that is, when it is "not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction." Id., at 342.

Here, the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion. Wilson knew beforehand that the pills were prescription-strength ibuprofen and over-the-counter naproxen, common pain relievers equivalent to two Advil, or one Aleve. He must have been aware of the nature and limited threat of the specific drugs he was searching for, and while just about anything can be taken in quantities that will do real harm, Wilson had no reason to suspect that large amounts of the drugs were being passed around, or that individual students were receiving great numbers of pills.

Nor could Wilson have suspected that Savana was hiding common painkillers in her underwear. Petitioners suggest, as a truth universally acknowledged, that "students . . . hid[e] contraband in or under their clothing," Reply Brief for Petitioners 8, and cite a smattering of cases of students with contraband in their underwear, id., at 8-9. But when the categorically extreme intrusiveness of a search down to the body of an adolescent requires some justification in suspected facts, general background possibilities fall short; a reasonable search that extensive calls for suspicion that it will pay off. But nondangerous school contraband does not raise the specter of stashes in intimate places, and there is no evidence in the record of any general practice among Safford Middle School students of hiding that sort of thing in underwear; neither Jordan nor Marissa suggested to Wilson that Savana was doing that, and the preceding search of Marissa that Wilson ordered yielded nothing. Wilson never even determined when Marissa had received the pills from Savana; if it had been a few days before, that would weigh heavily against any reasonable conclusion that Savana presently had the pills on her person, much less 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.

In so holding, we mean to cast no ill reflection on the assistant principal, for the record raises no doubt that his motive throughout was to eliminate drugs from his school and protect students from what Jordan Romero had gone through [becoming sick from drugs a student had given student Romero]. 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, even with the high degree of deference that courts must pay to the educator's professional judgment.

We do mean, though, to make it clear that the T. L. O. concern to limit a school search to reasonable scope requires the support of reasonable suspicion of danger or of resort to underwear for hiding evidence of wrongdoing before a search can reasonably make the quantum leap from outer clothes and backpacks to exposure of intimate parts. The meaning of such a search, and the degradation its subject may reasonably feel, place a search that intrusive in a category of its own demanding its own specific suspicions.


[Because of a lack of clarity of legal decisions in the area of intimate searches, the Court concluded that qualified immunity for Principal Wilson was warranted.]


The strip search of Savana Redding was unreasonable and a violation of the Fourth Amendment, but petitioners Wilson, Romero, and Schwallier are nevertheless protected from liability through qualified immunity.

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It is so ordered.

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