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High Court: School Violated Teen's Rights

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High Court: School Violated Teen's Rights

Law

High Court: School Violated Teen's Rights

High Court: School Violated Teen's Rights

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The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Arizona school officials violated a 13-year-old girl's constitutional rights when they strip-searched her, looking for drugs. In another case, the court ruled the constitution requires lab analysts whose reports are entered into evidence against a defendant to appear in court and be cross-examined.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

There were several major decisions from the Supreme Court today. We're going to hear now about two of them. In a case about strip searches, the court set new limits on how far school officials can go in searching students. That vote was 8 to 1. And in a ruling that jolted prosecutors across the country, the court ruled for the first time that criminal defendants have the right to require crime lab analysts to appear in court for cross-examination about test results.

NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports now on both cases.

NINA TOTENBERG: The strip search case involved the fruitless search for ibuprofen at an Arizona middle school. Savana Redding was 13, an honors student with no previous disciplinary record when she was summoned to the principal's office. Another student had fingered Redding as the person who had given her a prescription ibuprofen tablet in violation of school rules. Redding agreed to a search of her backpack and outer clothing, which produced nothing. Next, she was taken into a room with the school nurse and a secretary, told to take off her clothing and to shake out her bra and panties. Again, no pills were found.

Ms. SAVANA REDDING: I mean, hello, when you're that age, you go through puberty, you know, you're embarrassed of your body as it is, let alone to have to stand pretty much naked in front of, you know, professional people that you would see every day almost. It's just - it's pretty horrible.

TOTENBERG: Today the Supreme Court ruled that search went too far. Writing for the eight-justice court majority, Justice David Souter said the strip search violated Redding's constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches. Said Souter, it was reasonable to search Redding's backpack and outer clothing, but given the intrusiveness of a strip search, the humiliating nature of such a search for adolescents, the limited dangers of ibuprofen and the slim basis for suspecting Redding, a strip search was just not justified. Reached at home in Safford, Arizona, Savana Redding was elated.

Ms. REDDING: I feel victorious right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REDDING: I don't want this to ever happen to anybody, and I feel a little bit responsible in helping others because that's mostly what I wanted this whole time. And at the same time I feel, you know, really great that they are on my side. It makes it all worthwhile for me.

TOTENBERG: The court did hand school officials one partial victory today. It tossed out Redding's lawsuit for damages against school officials because the court said the rules on strip searches had previously been unclear. They sent the case back to the lower courts, however, to determine whether her suit against the school board should continue. The betting is that the case will likely settle out of court. And in the future, school officials will conduct strip searches for drugs at their peril.

Francisco Negron of the National School Boards Association said what remains unclear in today's ruling is not so much the question of drug dangerousness, but of weapons.

Mr. FRANCISCO NEGRON (National School Boards Association): Is some sort of weapon considered just, you know, per se dangerous, and what about the quality of the weapon? Like if it's just a short dirk or some sort of small piece of something, is that sufficient? So, I think that there's this injunction about the dangerousness that's really going to be the source of some litigation.

TOTENBERG: The lone dissenter from the ruling was Justice Clarence Thomas. He would have allowed the strip search. Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on the other hand, said the conduct of school officials here was sufficiently outrageous that the lawsuit against them should've gone forward.

If the strip search case was a shot across the bow to school officials today, the court's decision on crime labs was a bomb right into the criminal justice system's hull.

A bitterly divided court ruled five to four that crime lab analysts must routinely appear in court to be cross-examined by the defense about how forensic tests were conducted, the standards used and the basis for the analysts' conclusion. The vast majority of state and local governments routinely submit notarized reports from crime lab analysts for evidence at trial without producing the analyst to testify. That's what Massachusetts did in a case before the court where a lab certificate attested to the fact that the substance found in the possession of the defendant was cocaine.

The Supreme Court said today that procedure is unconstitutional unless the defense agrees to it. Writing for the five-justice court majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said the Constitution quite simply guarantees the defendant the right to confront the witnesses against him and a forensic analyst is a witness. The lineup of majority and dissenting justices did not fall along the usual ideological lines. Joining the conservative Scalia in the majority were fellow conservative Clarence Thomas and liberal Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Souter.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a furious dissent accusing the majority of defying common sense and a century of law to put the criminal justice system in jeopardy - all for what Kennedy called negligible benefits. Joining his dissent were Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer and Alito. Scott Burns of the National District Attorneys Association said the decision could lead to costly chaos.

Mr. SCOTT BURNS (National District Attorneys Association): It's pretty bad. It sets aside 90 years of precedent, and I guess in the real world it's bad for already stressed state budgets. I mean, we're going to have criminalists who should be in the labs doing their work, sitting in court rooms all day to get on the stand and in 30 seconds say that cocaine is cocaine.

TOTENBERG: Alabama's Deputy Attorney General Corey Maze filed a brief on behalf of 35 states.

Mr. COREY MAZE (Deputy Attorney General, Alabama): It could be very bad, but I think it's fair to say it could've been a lot worse.

TOTENBERG: The saving grace, he said, is that the court seemed to endorse the idea of a state law that requires the prosecution to notify the defense about plans to use forensic reports and the defense to stipulate pre-trial that it wants to have the lab analyst in court to testify. Currently, 10 states have laws or rules that are some version of that, but if prosecutors were upset by today's ruling, some leading forensic scientists were not. Thomas Bohan is president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Mr. THOMAS BOHAN (President, American Academy of Forensic Sciences): I agree with the majority that this is a no-brainer because of the importance of being able to test the expert witness.

TOTENBERG: Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, said dozens of wrongly convicted individuals have been freed when the scientific evidence used against them was more thoroughly scrutinized. That's something acknowledged in today's ruling.

Mr. PETER NEUFELD (Co-Director, Innocence Project): It's an acknowledgment that the content of a crime lab report is not scientifically neutral. The report can contain language that is biased or prejudiced or exaggerated.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, last February, a blue ribbon commission of the National Academy of Sciences noted that crime labs across the country have been plagued by fraud, incompetence and just plain bad science - and it called for the creation of a federal agency to establish standards for crime lab testing.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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Court Calls Search Of Student's Underwear Illegal

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