Safford Unified School District v. Redding

Safford Unified School District v. Redding
Argued April 21, 2009
Decided June 25, 2009
Full case name Safford Unified School District #1, et al. v. April Redding
Docket nos. 08-479
Citations 557 U.S. 364 (more)
129 S.Ct. 2633, 174 L.Ed.2d 354, 77 USLW 4591, 245 Ed. Law Rep. 626, 09 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 7974, 2009 Daily Journal D.A.R. 9383, 21 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 1011
Argument Oral argument
The search violated the Fourth Amendment as the school lacked reasons to suspect that the drugs presented a danger and that they were concealed in the student's underwear.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
John P. Stevens · Antonin Scalia
Anthony Kennedy · David Souter
Clarence Thomas · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen Breyer · Samuel Alito
Case opinions
Majority Souter, joined by Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Breyer, Alito; Stevens, Ginsburg (parts I–III)
Concur/dissent Stevens, joined by Ginsburg
Concur/dissent Ginsburg
Concur/dissent Thomas (concurring in judgment only)

Safford Unified School District v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364 (2009), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held that a strip search of a middle schooler violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution where the school lacked reasons to suspect either that the drugs (Ibuprofen) presented a danger or that they were concealed in her underwear. The court also held, however, that because this was not clearly established law prior to the court's decision, the officials involved were shielded from liability by qualified immunity.


Officials at Safford Middle School in Safford, Arizona received a report that 13-year-old Savana Redding had given a classmate four prescription-strength 400 mg ibuprofen and a 200 mg over-the-counter naproxen. Based on this suspicion, they first searched her belongings; then, believing that "students ... hid contraband in or under their clothing," had her strip to her underwear, "pull her bra out and to the side and shake it," and "pull out the elastic on her underpants" to see what might fall out.[1] The officials did not find any contraband on Redding's person, and they did not contact Redding's parents at any point during the investigation.

Safford School District, like many school districts, has a policy strictly prohibiting the use, possession, or sale of any drug on school grounds, including prescription drugs, without advanced administrative permission. A week before Savana was searched, a student reported to the school’s vice principal, Kerry Wilson, that students were bringing drugs onto campus, and, furthermore, the student reported becoming sick after taking pills obtained from a classmate. On the day of Savana’s search, the same student turned a white pill over to Mr. Wilson. The pill was later identified as a form of prescription ibuprofen. The student claimed that Marissa Glines had given him the pills. He also reported that he attended a party at Savana’s house at which alcohol was served to his peers.

In the presence of Helen Romero, an administrative assistant, Mr. Wilson requested Marissa turn out her pockets and open her wallet. Marissa produced a blue pill, several white ones, and a razor blade. Marissa identified Savana Redding as the person who had supplied her with the drugs. Wilson did not follow-up with questions to determine when Savana may have given Marissa the pills, where Savana might be hiding drugs, or how Savana had obtained them.

After escorting Savana, an 8th-grade honor roll student with no history of disciplinary problems or substance abuse, from her classroom to his office, Wilson questioned her about the drugs. Savana denied possessing drugs and also denied giving drugs to other students. She agreed to allow Mr. Wilson and Ms. Romero to search her backpack; the search revealed no drugs. Then, at Wilson’s direction, Savana was taken by Romero to the office of Peggy Schwallier, the school nurse, where they subjected Savana to a search of her bra and underpants. The search revealed no pills.[2]

Several faculty members alleged that Savana and Marissa were among a group of disorderly students at a school dance earlier in the school year. Marissa’s statement that the pills came from Savana, information from a student that pills were being brought to school, and information from faculty regarding the relationship between Marissa and Savana was determined to be sufficiently plausible grounds to justify the suspicion that Savana was involved in pill distribution.22

Redding's mother sued the school district and several school officials, arguing that this second, strip search violated Savana's Fourth Amendment right to be secure against "unreasonable searches and seizures.” The Reddings were represented by Adam Wolf of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project and Tucson-area attorneys Bruce G. Macdonald of the law firm McNamara, Goldsmith & Macdonald, P.C. and Andrew Petersen of the law firm of Humphrey and Petersen, P.C.[3] The defendants denied that such a violation occurred; the individual school officials further argued that, as school officials, they had qualified immunity from such a lawsuit.

The district court found that no Fourth Amendment violation occurred, and a panel of the Ninth Circuit agreed. But in an en banc rehearing, the full Ninth Circuit reversed the panel: it found that Savana's Fourth Amendment rights were violated, and further rejected the individual defendants' claims of qualified immunity. [4]

The defendants (now petitioners) appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari and approved her appeal.

Opinion of the Court

Justice Souter, writing for an 8-1 majority vote, held that the strip search violated Savana's Fourth Amendment rights, but that the individual school officials were entitled to qualified immunity, because the search's unconstitutionality was not clearly established at the time of the violation.

First, the court laid out the established Fourth Amendment jurisprudence: school searches, to be valid, merely require "reasonable suspicion", not "probable cause"; in terms of the knowledge required to meet that threshold, this calls for only a "moderate chance" of finding the expected evidence, not at "fair probability" or "substantial chance."
  • Law enforcement searches require "Probable cause": When searches are conducted by law enforcement officers, they must have "probable cause": i.e., the facts and circumstances within his knowledge, and of which he had reasonably trustworthy information, must be "sufficient in themselves to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that an offense has been or is being committed,[5] and that evidence bearing on that offense will be found in the place to be searched.
  • School searches merely require "reasonable suspicion:" Per New Jersey v. T. L. O., there is a lower level of suspicion necessary in the school setting: searches of students by school administrators require only "reasonable suspicion," such that "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.”[6]
  • ... with a laxer (but more ambiguous) definition of reliable knowledge: This lower threshold comes with a correspondingly laxer definition of "reliable knowledge," but it has been hard to define. Cases have looked to "the degree to which known facts imply prohibited conduct,"[7] the specificity of the information received,[8] and the reliability of its source.[9] "At the end of the day, however, we have realized that these factors cannot rigidly control,[[10]] and we have come back to saying that the standards are 'fluid concepts that take their substantive content from the particular contexts' in which they are being assessed."[11] The best distinction might be that prior to conducting an evidence search, a law enforcement officer must have knowledge that raises a “fair probability,”[12] or a “substantial chance,”[13] of discovering evidence of criminal activity, while school officials need only a "moderate chance" of finding evidence of wrongdoing.

2. Elaboration of facts

The court then laid out facts that would determine the level of suspicion/knowledge that the school officials possessed that a school rule was being violated (explaining in a footnote why "the legitimacy of the rule usually goes without saying as it does here"[14]). This evidence was "sufficiently plausible to warrant suspicion that Savana was involved in pill distribution," a suspicion that in turn "was enough to justify a search of Savana’s backpack and outer clothing" (as neither party disputed).

3. These facts demonstrate a violation of Redding's Fourth Amendment rights

The court then applied these facts to the remainder of the search, concluding this search violated Savana's Fourth Amendment rights because it did not meet these requirements.
  • Adolescent strip search through the lens of T. L. O.: He explained why the search would cause particular "indignity" to an early adolescent, and that this would be relevant to the "rule of reasonableness" as defined in T. L. O. -- namely, that the search as actually conducted be "reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place,"[15] i.e. "not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction."[16]
  • This strip search violated the standard set in T. L. O.: The court determined that, given these particular facts, "the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion," noting that petitioners failed to provide arguments sufficient to justify "the categorically extreme intrusiveness of a search down to the body of an adolescent" for "nondangerous school contraband". "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."
  • Concluding this section, Souter wrote: "[T]he 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."

4. These school officials were entitled to qualified immunity

Finally, the court determined that the individual school officials were entitled to qualified immunity, because the search's unconstitutionality was not clearly established at the time of the violation.
  • Qualified immunity requires "notice" of illegality: The legal question is whether the official had notice of the illegality of his actions. The Supreme Court had recently held that a school official searching a student is entitled to qualified immunity "where clearly established law does not show that the search violated the Fourth Amendment.”.[17] The law can be "established clearly" even if “the very action in question has [not] previously been held unlawful.”.[18]
  • T. L. O. standard has not provided adequate notice: However, "we realize that the lower courts have reached divergent conclusions regarding how the T. L. O. standard applies to such searches."[19] "[T]he cases viewing school strip searches differently from the way we see them are numerous enough, with well-reasoned majority and dissenting opinions, to counsel doubt that we were sufficiently clear in the prior statement of law."

Justices Stevens and Ginsburg

Justice Stevens, joined by Justice Ginsburg, dissented as to the question of qualified immunity. He would have denied it, as he felt that unconstitutionality of the search was obvious: "This is, in essence, a case in which clearly established law meets clearly outrageous conduct."

  • He disagreed that the unclarity of the law was shown by the various Courts of Appeals that have adopted "seemingly divergent views" about T. L. O.’s application to strip searches: "the clarity of a well-established right should not depend on whether jurists have misread our precedents."
  • "And while our cases have previously noted the “divergence of views” among courts in deciding whether to extend qualified immunity,[20] we have relied on that consideration only to spare officials from having “ ‘to predict the future course of constitutional law[.]’ ”.[21] In this case, by contrast, we chart no new constitutional path. We merely decide whether the decision to strip search Savana Redding, on these facts, was prohibited under T. L. O. Our conclusion leaves the boundaries of the law undisturbed."

In a separate opinion, Justice Ginsburg further elaborated on why she thought qualified immunity was inappropriate in this case:

In contrast to T. L. O., where a teacher discovered a student smoking in the lavatory, and where the search was confined to the student’s purse, the search of Redding involved her body and rested on the bare accusation of another student whose reliability the Assistant Principal had no reason to trust. The Court’s opinion in T. L. O. plainly stated the controlling Fourth Amendment law: A search ordered by a school official, even if “justified at its inception,” crosses the constitutional boundary if it becomes “excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.” 469 U. S., at 342 (internal quotation marks omitted).

Here, “the nature of the [supposed] infraction,” the slim basis for suspecting Savana Redding, and her “age and sex,” ibid., establish beyond doubt that Assistant Principal Wilson’s order cannot be reconciled with this Court’s opinion in T. L. O. Wilson’s treatment of Redding was abusive and it was not reasonable for him to believe that the law permitted it.

Concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part

Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the courts below that the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment. All parties agreed that the school had "[r]easonable suspicion that Redding was in possession of drugs in violation of these policies," and whereas the majority believed this justified only the first search, Thomas concluded it "justified a search extending to any area where small pills could be concealed."[22] (Thomas, J., dissenting). In his opinion, Thomas warned that the majority's decision could backfire: "Redding would not have been the first person to conceal pills in her undergarments. Nor will she be the last after today's decision, which announces the safest place to secrete contraband in school."[23]

See also


  1. Slip op. at 2, 10.
  4. The Supreme Court elaborates:
    Following the two-step protocol for evaluating claims of qualified immunity, see Saucier v. Katz, 533 U. S. 194, 200 (2001), the Ninth Circuit held that the strip search was unjustified under the Fourth Amendment test for searches of children by school officials set out in New Jersey v. T. L. O., 469 U. S. 325 (1985) . 531 F. 3d 1071, 1081–1087 (2008). The Circuit then applied the test for qualified immunity, and found that Savana’s right was clearly established at the time of the search: “‘[t]hese notions of personal privacy are “clearly established” in that they inhere in all of us, particularly middle school teenagers, and are inherent in the privacy component of the Fourth Amendment ’s proscription against unreasonable searches.’ ” Id., at 1088–1089 (quoting Brannum v. Overton Cty. School Bd., 516 F. 3d 489, 499 (CA6 2008)). The upshot was reversal of summary judgment as to Wilson, while affirming the judgments in favor of Schwallier, the school nurse, and Romero, the administrative assistant, since they had not acted as independent decisionmakers. 531 F. 3d, at 1089.
  5. Brinegar v. United States, 338 U. S. 160, 175–176 (1949) (quoting Carroll v. United States, 267 U. S. 132, 162 (1925) ),
  6. New Jersey v. T. L. O., at 342.
  7. see, e.g., Adams v. Williams, 407 U. S. 143, 148 (1972) ; id., at 160, n. 9 (Marshall, J., dissenting)
  8. see, e.g., Spinelli v. United States, 393 U. S. 410, 416–417 (1969)
  9. see, e.g., Aguilar v. Texas, 378 U. S. 108, 114 (1964)
  10. Here the court cites Illinois v. Gates, 462 U. S. 213, 230 (1983)
  11. Here the court cites Ornelas v. United States, 517 U. S. 690, 696 (1996).
  12. Gates, 462 U. S., at 238
  13. id., at 244, n. 13
  14. Stevens elaborates in Footnote 1:
    When the object of a school search is the enforcement of a school rule, a valid search assumes, of course, the rule’s legitimacy. But the legitimacy of the rule usually goes without saying as it does here. The Court said plainly in New Jersey v. T. L. O., 469 U. S. 325, n. 9 (1985), that standards of conduct for schools are for school administrators to determine without second-guessing by courts lacking the experience to appreciate what may be needed. Except in patently arbitrary instances, Fourth Amendment analysis takes the rule as a given, as it obviously should do in this case. There is no need here either to explain the imperative of keeping drugs out of schools, or to explain the reasons for the school’s rule banning all drugs, no matter how benign, without advance permission. Teachers are not pharmacologists trained to identify pills and powders, and an effective drug ban has to be enforceable fast. The plenary ban makes sense, and there is no basis to claim that the search was unreasonable owing to some defect or shortcoming of the rule it was aimed at enforcing.
  15. 469 U. S., at 341 (internal quotation marks omitted)
  16. Id., at 342.
  17. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U. S. __, __ (2009) (slip op., at 18)
  18. Wilson v. Layne, 526 U. S. 603, 615 (1999)
  19. A number of judges have read T. L. O. as the en banc minority of the Ninth Circuit did here. The Sixth Circuit upheld a strip search of a high school student for a drug, without any suspicion that drugs were hidden next to her body. Williams v. Ellington, 936 F. 2d 881, 882–883, 887 (1991). And other courts considering qualified immunity for strip searches have read T. L. O. as “a series of abstractions, on the one hand, and a declaration of seeming deference to the judgments of school officials, on the other,” Jenkins v. Talladega City Bd. of Ed., 115 F. 3d 821, 828 (CA11 1997) (en banc), which made it impossible “to establish clearly the contours of a Fourth Amendment right … [in] the wide variety of possible school settings different from those involved in T. L. O.” itself. Ibid. See also Thomas v. Roberts, 323 F. 3d 950 (CA11 2003) (granting qualified immunity to a teacher and police officer who conducted a group strip search of a fifth grade class when looking for a missing $26).
  20. Stevens includes the following citations:
    e.g.,Pearson v. Callahan, (2009) 555 U. S., ___, ___ (slip op., at 20) (noting the unsettled constitutionality of the so-called “consent-once-removed” doctrine); Wilson v. Layne, 526 U. S. 603, 618 (1999) (considering conflicting views on the constitutionality of law enforcement’s practice of allowing the media to enter a private home to observe and film attempted arrests)
  21. Stevens includes the follow citations:
    Id., at 617 (quoting Procunier v. Navarette, 434 U. S. 555, 562 (1978) ; emphasis added)
  22. Slip op. at 17
  23. Savana Redding Strip Search Was Illegal, Supreme Court Says

22Essex, N. (2010). The US Supreme Court Raises the Bar for Strip Searches in Public Schools. The Clearing House, 83, 105-108.
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