- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

The Supreme Court ruled overwhelmingly Thursday that an Arizona middle school principal’s strip search of a 13-year-old girl in 2003 violated her constitutional rights.

The court ruled 8-1 that the principal, who was searching for prescription-strength pain relievers, had standing to search the girl’s backpack and clothing, but violated her Fourth Amendment right to privacy when he demanded she take off her bra and part of her underwear.

The court returned the case to a lower federal court for review, but did not grant the family’s request for damages, saying that the school has “qualified immunity.”

The girl’s “subjective expectation of privacy against such a search is inherent in her account of it as embarrassing, frightening, and humiliating,” Justice David H. Souter wrote for the majority. “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.”

Safford Middle School Assistant Principal Kerry Wilson called Savanna Redding to his office in 2003 where he had laid out her day planner, with “several knives, lighters, a permanent marker, and a cigarette” that had been found inside the planner.

Mr. Wilson also showed her four prescription-strength ibuprofen pills and one over-the-counter naproxen pill. Mr. Wilson then asked for permission to search her belongings, which she granted.

After Mr. Wilson found nothing in her backpack, Savanna was ultimately taken to the school nurse’s office where she was ordered to remove her bra and partially undo her underwear.

Savanna’s mother sued the Safford Unified School District and the middle school administrators, for conducting the strip search.

All of the court’s members, except Justice Clarence Thomas, sided with Justice Souter in saying the final strip search violated Savanna’s constitutional right to privacy.

Justice Thomas said that the court’s previous readings of the Fourth Amendments grant “considerable leeway” to school officials seeking to maintain order.

“Because the school officials searched in a location where the pills could have been hidden, the search was reasonable in scope,” Justice Thomas wrote.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens concurred with the majority decision that the school principal’s search was unconstitutional but did not agree that the school district was immune from paying damages to the family.

The court also ruled in two 5-4 decisions that criminal defendants have a right to cross-examine forensic analysts and sailors injured on the job have the right to sue their employer for punitive damages.

Punitive damages extend further than compensatory damages to allow for larger judgments.

The court, in one of its final batch of rulings issued this term, also decided that an Arizona judge must reconsider a 17-year-old lawsuit that has kept the state under federal supervision for enforcing English-language programs.

The court is expected to issue its rulings for this term Monday before breaking for the summer.

Among the more high-profile cases yet to be decided is Ricci v. DeStefano, in which a group of New Haven, Conn., firefighters were denied promotions after a jobs test was thrown out by the city.

The ruling is expected to bear heavily on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, who goes before the Senate in less than three weeks.

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