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Strip Search of 13-Year-Old for Ibuprofen Ruled Unconstitutional

Jag Davies,
Drug Law Reform Project
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July 12, 2008

If you have a problem with school officials strip searching 13-year-olds for Advil — or if you care about the government’s standards for informant use and invasive searches — you can take relief in yesterday’s ruling by a full panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which ruled 6-5 that students cannot be strip-searched based on the uncorroborated word of another student who is facing disciplinary punishment.

“A reasonable school official, seeking to protect the students in his charge, does not subject a thirteen-year-old girl to a traumatic search to “protect” her from the danger of Advil,” the federal appellate court wrotein today’s opinion. “We reject Safford’s effort to lump together these run-of-the-mill anti-inflammatory pills with the evocative term‘prescription drugs,’ in a knowing effort to shield an imprudentstrip search of a young girl behind a larger war against drugs.”

“It does not take a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a 13-year-old girl is an invasion of constitutional rights. More than that: it is a violation of any known principle of human dignity,” the court continued.

In addition to finding the strip search unconstitutional, the court held that the school official who ordered the strip search, Vice Principal Kerry Wilson, is financially liable in the case and cannot claim qualified immunity.

The ACLU co-represented the student, SavanaRedding, before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which decided to reconsider the case after a three-judge panel ruled 2-1 that the strip-search was legal.

For a case like this, it’s hard to understand how the unconstitutionality of strip searching Redding could even be up for debate. Consider how flimsy the government’s case was:

  • No physical evidence suggested that Redding — an honor roll student with no history of substance use or abuse — might be in possession of ibuprofen pills or that she was concealing them in her undergarments.
  • The strip search was undertaken based solely on the uncorroborated claims of a classmate facing punishment, who was caught with prescription strength ibuprofen — the equivalent of two over-the-counter pills of Advil. (And why on earth might a teenaged girl have ibuprofen?)
  • No attempt was made to corroborate the classmate’s accusations among other students or teachers.
  • The classmate had not claimed that Redding currently possessed any pills, nor had the classmate given any indication as to where they might be concealed.
  • No attempt was made to contact Redding’s parents prior to conducting the strip search.

If you want to get some background information on the abundance of scientific literature describing the serious psychological repercussions of being strip-searched at age 13, you should check out the briefs of support that were also filed by the NationalAssociation of Social Workers and the RutherfordInstitute.

“The strip search was the most humiliating experience I have ever had,” said Redding in a sworn affidavit following the incident. “I held my head down so that they could not see that I was about to cry.”

As Reason’s Jacob Sullum insightfully observed in his article on the case, “The School Crotch Inspector”:

“There are two kinds of people in the world: the kind who think it’s perfectly reasonable to strip-search a 13-year-old girl suspected of bringing ibuprofen to school, and the kind who think those people should be kept as far away from children as possible … Sometimes it’s hard to tell the differencebetween drug warriors and child molesters.”

The same safeguardsand regulations on informant use that we have been advocating in the context of criminal drug proceedings apply even more so to the context of school, where young people are particularly vulnerable to unsubstantiated rumors and finger-pointing by vindictive peers.

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