28 Oct 2009

Right of School to strip-search students: US Supreme Court responds

In a recent decision having ramifications manifold on the 'right of privacy', the United States Supreme Court has declared that while schools have a right to search the students on the suspicion of carrying condrabands/prohibited substances, they indeed can be violative of the right to privacy of the student (as protected by the Fourth Amendment) if it extends to strip-search on person. Examining the issue, the Supreme Court in Safford Unified School District No. 1 v. Redding ruled;
The issue here is whether a 13-year-old student’s Fourth Amendment right was violated when she was subjected toa search of her bra and underpants by school officials acting on reasonable suspicion that she had brought for-bidden prescription and over-the-counter drugs to school. Because there were no reasons to suspect the drugs presented a danger or were concealed in her underwear, we hold that the search did violate the Constitution, but because there is reason to question the clarity with which the right was established, the official who ordered the unconstitutional search is entitled to qualified immunity from liability.
Thus while the Court declared that the search was violative of the constitutional right of the student, given the prevailing position of law, the school-administration could not be held liable and they were immune from liability. For having dealt with the issue but (in a opinion of some) not completely fixing the liability, the decision have been criticized as not being a trend-setter. For instance Lewis R. Katz & Carl J. Mazzone in their paper conclude that "the Court was not clear enough to forestall future questions about what actually constitutes a strip search: is it a search down to underwear or does it require exposure of breasts or genitals? The court failed in its mission to provide guidance and prevent future litigation by not providing a clearer definition." The authors also suggest that the definition of a strip search necessarily differs for a boy and a girl wherein they specify different standards to argue that "the Court’s failure to firmly establish the minimum threshold of a strip search will undoubtedly lead to future litigation, and that possibility again raises sufficient uncertainty that will lead to qualified immunity, perhaps even after as egregious incidents as in Redding."

Note: Alternative link to the decision and the arguments made during the hearing of the case can be accessed from here.

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