Amdt4.6.6.6 School Searches

Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

In New Jersey v. T.L.O.,1 the Court set forth the principles governing searches by public school authorities. The Fourth Amendment applies to searches conducted by public school officials because “school officials act as representatives of the State, not merely as surrogates for the parents.” 2 However, “the school setting requires some easing of the restrictions to which searches by public authorities are ordinarily subject.” 3 Neither the warrant requirement nor the probable cause standard is appropriate, the Court ruled. Instead, a simple reasonableness standard governs all searches of students’ persons and effects by school authorities.4 A search must be reasonable at its inception, that is, there must be “reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school.” 5 School searches must also be reasonably related in scope to the circumstances justifying the interference, and “not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.” 6 In applying these rules, the Court upheld as reasonable the search of a student’s purse to determine whether the student, accused of violating a school rule by smoking in the lavatory, possessed cigarettes. The search for cigarettes uncovered evidence of drug activity held admissible in a prosecution under the juvenile laws.

In Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding,7 a student found in possession of prescription ibuprofen pills at school stated that the pills had come from another student, 13-year-old Savana Redding. The Court found that the first student’s statement was sufficiently plausible to warrant suspicion that Savana was involved in pill distribution, and that this suspicion was enough to justify a search of Savana’s backpack and outer clothing.8 School officials, however, had also “directed Savana to remove her clothes down to her underwear, and then ‘pull out’ her bra and the elastic band on her underpants” 9 —an action that the Court thought could fairly be labeled a strip search. Taking into account that “adolescent vulnerability intensifies the patent intrusiveness of the exposure” and that, according to a study, a strip search can “result in serious emotional damage,” the Court found that the search violated the Fourth Amendment.10 “Because there were no reasons to suspect the drugs presented a danger or were concealed in her underwear,” the Court wrote, “the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion.” 11 But, even though the Court found that the search had violated the Fourth Amendment, it found that the school officials who conducted the search were protected from liability through qualified immunity, because the law prior to Redding was not clearly established.12

469 U.S. 325 (1985). back
469 U.S. at 336. back
469 U.S. at 340. back
This single rule, the Court explained, will permit school authorities “to regulate their conduct according to the dictates of reason and common sense.” 469 U.S. at 343. Rejecting the suggestion of dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens, the Court was “unwilling to adopt a standard under which the legality of a search is dependent upon a judge’s evaluation of the relative importance of various school rules.” Id. at n.9. back
469 U.S. at 342. The Court has further elaborated that this “reasonable suspicion” standard is met if there is a “moderate chance” of finding evidence of wrongdoing. Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364, 371 (2009). back
469 U.S. at 342. back
557 U.S. 364 (2009). back
557 U.S. 364, 373–74 (2009). back
557 U.S. at 374. back
557 U.S. at 375. back
557 U.S. at 368, 375. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the finding of a Fourth Amendment violation. back
See Amdt4.7.1 Exclusionary Rule and Evidence to Amdt4.7.4 Good Faith Exception to Exclusionary Rule. Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from the grant of qualified immunity. back