Safford Unified School District v. Redding (2009)

Supreme Court of the United States

Safford Unified School District #1 v. April Redding

Decided June 25, 2009 – 557 U.S. 364


Justice SOUTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue here is whether a 13–year–old student’s Fourth Amendment right was violated when she was subjected to a search of her bra and underpants by school officials acting on reasonable suspicion that she had brought forbidden prescription and over-the-counter drugs to school. Because there were no reasons to suspect the drugs presented a danger or were concealed in her underwear, we hold that the search did violate the Constitution.


The events immediately prior to the search in question began in 13–year–old Savana Redding’s math class at Safford Middle School one October day in 2003. The assistant principal of the school, Kerry Wilson, came into the room and asked Savana to go to his office. There, he showed her a day planner, unzipped and open flat on his desk, in which there were several knives, lighters, a permanent marker, and a cigarette. Wilson asked Savana whether the planner was hers; she said it was, but that a few days before she had lent it to her friend, Marissa Glines. Savana stated that none of the items in the planner belonged to her.

Wilson then showed Savana four white prescription-strength ibuprofen 400–mg pills, and one over-the-counter blue naproxen 200–mg pill, all used for pain and inflammation but banned under school rules without advance permission. He asked Savana if she knew anything about the pills. Savana answered that she did not. Wilson then told Savana that he had received a report that she was giving these pills to fellow students; Savana denied it and agreed to let Wilson search her belongings. Helen Romero, an administrative assistant, came into the office, and together with Wilson they searched Savana’s backpack, finding nothing.

At that point, Wilson instructed Romero to take Savana to the school nurse’s office to search her clothes for pills. Romero and the nurse, Peggy Schwallier, asked Savana to remove her jacket, socks, and shoes, leaving her in stretch pants and a T-shirt (both without pockets), which she was then asked to remove. Finally, Savana was told to pull her bra out and to the side and shake it, and to pull out the elastic on her underpants, thus exposing her breasts and pelvic area to some degree. No pills were found.

Savana’s mother filed suit against Safford Unified School District # 1, Wilson, Romero, and Schwallier for conducting a strip search in violation of Savana’s Fourth Amendment rights. The individuals (hereinafter petitioners) moved for summary judgment, raising a defense of qualified immunity. The District Court for the District of Arizona granted the motion on the ground that there was no Fourth Amendment violation, and a panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed. A closely divided Circuit sitting en banc, however, reversed. We granted certiorari and now affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.


The Fourth Amendment “right of the people to be secure in their persons … against unreasonable searches and seizures” generally requires a law enforcement officer to have probable cause for conducting a search.

In T.L.O., we recognized that the school setting “requires some modification of the level of suspicion of illicit activity needed to justify a search” and held that for searches by school officials “a careful balancing of governmental and private interests suggests that the public interest is best served by a Fourth Amendment standard of reasonableness that stops short of probable cause.” We have thus applied a standard of reasonable suspicion to determine the legality of a school administrator’s search of a student and have held that a school search “will be permissible in its scope when 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.” ***



***On the morning of October 8, the same boy handed Wilson a white pill that he said Marissa Glines had given him. He told Wilson that students were planning to take the pills at lunch.

Wilson learned from Peggy Schwallier, the school nurse, that the pill was Ibuprofen 400 mg, available only by prescription. Wilson then called Marissa out of class. Outside the classroom, Marissa’s teacher handed Wilson the day planner, found within Marissa’s reach, containing various contraband items. Wilson escorted Marissa back to his office.

In the presence of Helen Romero, Wilson requested Marissa to turn out her pockets and open her wallet. Marissa produced a blue pill, several white ones, and a razor blade. Wilson asked where the blue pill came from, and Marissa answered, “‘I guess it slipped in when she gave me the IBU 400s.’” When Wilson asked whom she meant, Marissa replied, “‘Savana Redding.’” Wilson then enquired about the day planner and its contents; Marissa denied knowing anything about them. Wilson did not ask Marissa any followup questions to determine whether there was any likelihood that Savana presently had pills: neither asking when Marissa received the pills from Savana nor where Savana might be hiding them.

Schwallier did not immediately recognize the blue pill, but information provided through a poison control hotline indicated that the pill was a 200-mg dose of an anti-inflammatory drug, generically called naproxen, available over the counter. At Wilson’s direction, Marissa was then subjected to a search of her bra and underpants by Romero and Schwallier, as Savana was later on. The search revealed no additional pills.

It was at this juncture that Wilson called Savana into his office and showed her the day planner. Their conversation established that Savana and Marissa were on friendly terms: while she denied knowledge of the contraband, Savana admitted that the day planner was hers and that she had lent it to Marissa. Wilson had other reports of their friendship from staff members, who had identified Savana and Marissa as part of an unusually rowdy group at the school’s opening dance in August, during which alcohol and cigarettes were found in the girls’ bathroom. Wilson had reason to connect the girls with this contraband, for Wilson knew that Jordan Romero had told the principal that before the dance, he had been at a party at Savana’s house where alcohol was served. Marissa’s statement that the pills came from Savana was thus sufficiently plausible to warrant suspicion that Savana was involved in pill distribution.

This suspicion of Wilson’s was enough to justify a search of Savana’s backpack and outer clothing. If a student is reasonably suspected of giving out contraband pills, she is reasonably suspected of carrying them on her person and in the carryall that has become an item of student uniform in most places today. If Wilson’s reasonable suspicion of pill distribution were not understood to support searches of outer clothes and backpack, it would not justify any search worth making. And the look into Savana’s bag, in her presence and in the relative privacy of Wilson’s office, was not excessively intrusive, any more than Romero’s subsequent search of her outer clothing.


Here it is that the parties part company, with Savana’s claim that extending the search at Wilson’s behest to the point of making her pull out her underwear was constitutionally unreasonable. The exact label for this final step in the intrusion is not important, though strip search is a fair way to speak of it. Romero and Schwallier directed Savana to remove her clothes down to her underwear, and then “pull out” her bra and the elastic band on her underpants. Although Romero and Schwallier stated that they did not see anything when Savana followed their instructions, we would not define strip search and its Fourth Amendment consequences in a way that would guarantee litigation about who was looking and how much was seen. The very fact of Savana’s pulling her underwear away from her body in the presence of the two officials who were able to see her necessarily exposed her breasts and pelvic area to some degree, and both subjective and reasonable societal expectations of personal privacy support the treatment of such a search as categorically distinct, requiring distinct elements of justification on the part of school authorities for going beyond a search of outer clothing and belongings.

Savana’s subjective expectation of privacy against such a search is inherent in her account of it as embarrassing, frightening, and humiliating. 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. The common reaction of these adolescents simply registers the obviously different meaning of a search exposing the body from the experience of nakedness or near undress in other school circumstances. Changing for gym is getting ready for play; exposing for a search is responding to an accusation reserved for suspected wrongdoers and fairly understood as so degrading that a number of communities have decided that strip searches in schools are never reasonable and have banned them no matter what the facts may be.


Here, the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion. Wilson knew beforehand that the pills were prescription-strength ibuprofen and over-the-counter naproxen, common pain relievers equivalent to two Advil, or one Aleve. He must have been aware of the nature and limited threat of the specific drugs he was searching for, and while just about anything can be taken in quantities that will do real harm, Wilson had no reason to suspect that large amounts of the drugs were being passed around, or that individual students were receiving great numbers of pills.

….there is no evidence in the record of any general practice among Safford Middle School students of hiding that sort of thing in underwear; neither Jordan nor Marissa suggested to Wilson that Savana was doing that, and the preceding search of Marissa that Wilson ordered yielded nothing. Wilson never even determined when Marissa had received the pills from Savana; if it had been a few days before, that would weigh heavily against any reasonable conclusion that Savana presently had the pills on her person, much less in her underwear.

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. We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable.

In so holding, we mean to cast no ill reflection on the assistant principal, for the record raises no doubt that his motive throughout was to eliminate drugs from his school and protect students from what Jordan Romero had gone through. Parents are known to overreact to protect their children from danger, and a school official with responsibility for safety may tend to do the same. The difference is that the Fourth Amendment places limits on the official, even with the high degree of deference that courts must pay to the educator’s professional judgment.

We do mean, though, to make it clear that the 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.

[The Court found qualified immunity warranted for Wilson, Romero, and Schwallier because “the 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.” The case was remanded for resolution of the question of liability for the school district.]

Justice THOMAS, concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.

By declaring the search unreasonable in this case, the majority has “‘surrender[ed] control of the American public school system to public school students’” by invalidating school policies that treat all drugs equally and by second-guessing swift disciplinary decisions made by school officials. The Court’s interference in these matters of great concern to teachers, parents, and students illustrates why the most constitutionally sound approach to the question of applying the Fourth Amendment in local public schools would in fact be the complete restoration of the common-law doctrine of in loco parentis.


In the end, the task of implementing and amending public school policies is beyond this Court’s function. Parents, teachers, school administrators, local politicians, and state officials are all better suited than judges to determine the appropriate limits on searches conducted by school officials. Preservation of order, discipline, and safety in public schools is simply not the domain of the Constitution. And, common sense is not a judicial monopoly or a Constitutional imperative.

Only then will teachers again be able to “‘govern the[ir] pupils, quicken the slothful, spur the indolent, restrain the impetuous, and control the stubborn’” by making “‘rules, giv[ing] commands, and punish[ing] disobedience’” without interference from judges. By deciding that it is better equipped to decide what behavior should be permitted in schools, the Court has undercut student safety and undermined the authority of school administrators and local officials. Even more troubling, it has done so in a case in which the underlying response by school administrators was reasonable and justified. I cannot join this regrettable decision. I, therefore, respectfully dissent from the Court’s determination that this search violated the Fourth Amendment.

Notes, Comments, and Questions

April Redding sued the Safford Unified school district on behalf of her daughter, Savana. During the oral argument, some of the Justices asked questions that betrayed their lack of knowledge about modern middle school life. Justice Scalia, for example, inquired about some of the items classified as contraband at Savana’s school. He said learning that a “black marker pencil” was contraband “astounded” him. Told by counsel that students use such markers “for sniffing,” Justice Scalia replied, “Oh, is that what they do? … They sniff them? … Really?”

Justice Breyer, after trying to pin down the facts concerning how Savana was searched—and after suggesting that underwear might be a sensible place to hide pills—reminisced on his own school days.

“In my experience when I was 8 or 10 or 12 years old, you know, we did take our clothes off once a day, we changed for gym, okay?”

He continued, “And in my experience, too, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear.”

The audience burst into laughter, and he clarified: “Or not my underwear. Whatever. … I was the one who did it? I don’t know.”

Dahlia Lithwick, who covered the case for Slate, predicted as follows after the oral argument:

“When constitutional historians sit down someday to compile the definitive Supreme Court Concordance of Not Getting It, the entry directly next to Lilly Ledbetter (‘Court fails utterly to understand realities of gender pay discrimination’) will be Savana Redding (‘Court compares strip searches of 13-year-old girls to American Pie-style locker-room hijinks’). After today’s argument, it’s plain the court will overturn a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion finding a school’s decision to strip-search a 13-year-old girl unconstitutional.  That the school in question was looking for a prescription pill with the mind-altering force of a pair of Advil—and couldn’t be bothered to call the child’s mother first—hardly matters.”

Having read the Court’s opinion, we know that Lithwick’s prediction was not correct. Justice Breyer, he of the hijinks memories, joined an eight-Justice majority finding that the school’s behavior violated the Fourth Amendment. Although there was broad consensus for finding a violation, a smaller majority of Justices denied Savana money damages, holding that the school officials were protected by “qualified immunity,”


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