Safford Unified School District # 1 v. Redding

Issues 

Whether the Fourth Amendment requires a stricter standard than reasonableness for student strip-searches, and if so, whether school officials conducting a strip-search have qualified immunity from suit for violation of Fourth Amendment rights.

Oral argument: 
April 21, 2009

Safford middle school officials strip-searched thirteen-year-old Savana Redding, seeking prescription-strength ibuprofen pills based on uncorroborated information from another student that Savana possessed ibuprofen in an unspecified time and location. This case concerns whether the school violated Redding's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and, if so, whether qualified immunity shields the school officials from liability. After a District Court and a Ninth Circuit panel found the search to be lawful, the Ninth Circuit reheard the case en banc; it reversed and held that qualified immunity did not protect the school official who ordered the search. Petitioners Safford Unified School District #1, et al. argue that the search was reasonable given the fellow student's tip and the threat of prescription drug abuse, but that even if it was not, school officials must have qualified immunity so they are free to exercise their judgment regarding drug abuse in schools. They argue that a decision in Respondent's favor would hamper school officials' ability to respond in the face of threats to student safety in school. Respondent April Redding argues that a strip search was unreasonable because the school lacked any indication that Savana had pills hidden in her undergarments, and that the school officials should be held responsible. She argues that a decision for Petitioner would enable school officials to conduct highly invasive searches based on only minimal, vague suspicion. This case promises guidance both to school officials seeking to carry out their duties effectively without violating students' rights and to lower courts responsible for assessing school officials' conduct.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

(1) Whether the Fourth Amendment prohibits public school officials from conducting a search of a student suspected of possessing and distributing a prescription drug on campus in violation of school policy.

(2) Whether the Ninth Circuit departed from established principles of qualified immunity in holding that a public school administrator may be liable in a damages lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for conducting a search of a student suspected of possessing and distributing a prescription drug on campus.

Facts 

In the fall of 2003, Safford Middle School officials were concerned about the distribution of prescription and over-the-counter-drugs among students.