The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Arizona middle school officials acted illegally when they searched a 13-year-old student's underwear for prescription and over-the-counter pills.
The justices voted 8-1 that Safford Middle School officials violated the girl's Fourth Amendment rights when they forced her to shake out her underwear. However, they said the officials couldn't be held liable.
Savana Redding, now in college, was an eighth-grader at Safford, in eastern Arizona, when a classmate accused her of providing some prescription ibuprofen. The school, which bans prescription and over-the-counter drugs without advance permission, called Redding in for questioning. She denied the accusation and allowed her backpack to be searched. Officials found nothing, but they ordered Redding to take off her clothes and then went a step further, ordering her to shake out her underwear.
No pills were found.
The court found that a "reasonable" search of the body of an adolescent would require some reason to believe the search would be fruitful or that the contraband was dangerous.
"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," Justice David Souter wrote in the majority opinion. "We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable."
Souter wrote that the court did not intend to cast doubts on the motives of the school officials, believing that their aim was to protect the students. Therefore, the justices ruled that school officials cannot be held liable in a lawsuit over the search. They said a lower court would have to decide on the liability of Stafford United School District No. 1.
In another ruling involving Arizona public schools, the justices narrowly decided that a lower court should re-evaluate the state's instructional program for non-native English speakers.
In a 5-4 vote, the court reversed a ruling that has kept Arizona's program for English-language learners under the supervision of a federal judge for violations of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act.
The case stems from a 1997 lawsuit filed by students and their parents in Nogales, Ariz., alleging that Arizona was not providing equal opportunities for native and non-native English students. A federal appeals court ruled in their favor.
Writing for the conservative majority, Justice Samuel Alito said the federal judge in Arizona must re-evaluate the steps the state has taken to increase opportunities under the No Child Left Behind law passed in 2002 and subsequent changes enacted by the state's Legislature.
But the dissenting judges said the district court had gotten a fair accounting of the changes during an eight-day hearing in 2007. Justice Stephen Breyer said the court's decision risks undermining efforts to enhance the participation of non-native English speakers in U.S. schools, workplaces, politics and government.
In other Supreme Court actions Thursday:
• The court ruled that crime lab reports may be introduced as evidence in court only if defense attorneys can cross-examine the persons who prepared them.
The 5-4 decision involves the cocaine trafficking conviction of Luis Melendez-Diaz in Massachusetts. The conviction was based, in part, on evidence obtained from plastic bags found in a car in which Melendez-Diaz was riding.
Defense attorneys wanted to interview the forensic analyst about how the evidence was collected and tested, but a Massachusetts court turned down their request. Later, the National Innocence Network — a network of defense attorneys — argued that the testimony was vital because of errors in crime labs across the country.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said the constitutional rights of defendants cannot be relaxed because of the burden it might cause prosecutors.
With reporting from NPR wire services