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Second Circuit Considers Whether Strip Search of Student Was Unreasonable

As reported here, in Phaneuf v. Fraikin, 04-4783-cv, the Second Circuit addressed the interesting issue of whether a strip search of a student for marijuana that was conducted by the student's mother at the behest of school officials was supported by reasonable suspicion.  The facts of this case were summarized in the article as follows:

The incident that sparked the lawsuit happened on June 7, 2002, as Plainville High School students were about to leave for their senior class picnic. School officials conducted a search of student bags and, in Ms. Phaneuf's purse, uncovered a pack of cigarettes--a violation of school policy.

Another student, Michele Cyr, also reported to physical education teacher Cindy Birdsall that she had heard Kelly telling others that she was planning to hide marijuana in her pants.

In reaching its decision, the Court considered the application of the Fourth Amendment "reasonableness" standard to searches of students:

(T)he accommodation of the privacy interests of schoolchildren with the substantial need of teachers and administrators for freedom to maintain order in the schools does not require strict adherence to the requirement that searches be based on probable cause to believe that the subject of the search has violated or is violating the law. Rather, the legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search.

(A) two-part test (is required) to determine the reasonableness of a student search. First, the search must be “justified at its inception"....Second, the student strip search must be “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.” (Internal citations and quotations omitted).

After considering the first part of the two-prong test,  the Second Circuit concluded that the search was not justified at its inception:

Here, school officials point to four factors they contend created the reasonable suspicion required to justify the search: (1) the tip from a fellow student, (2) Phaneuf’s past disciplinary problems, (3) the suspicious manner of her denial, and (4) the discovery of cigarettes in her purse. We conclude that these four factors—considered singly and together—were insufficient.

I'm inclined to agree.  This was an extremely invasive, humiliating search based largely upon the allegations of another student whose motivations were unknown.  While I recognize the important need for teachers and administrators maintain order, they went too far in this case.  A strip search was simply uncalled for.

I would be interested in learning of the District Court's decision on the issue of qulified immunity upon remand of the case.


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I don't care so much about the MJ. What I don't understand is apparently Florida v. JL wasn't bad enough. Now an identified informant accompanied by various potentially corroborating (indirectly) facts is also insufficient?
I cry foul on this one. The second circuit reacted to what was being searched for and made bad law.


Slick--I'm going to have to wholeheartedly disagree with you on this one. Florida v. JL's fact pattern was substantially different--the person searched was searched by the police based upon an anonymous tip. I realize that you're saying that that decision was a reach as well--but a completely different analysis is applied in that case than in the case at hand.

Students in a school are treated quite differently when searched by individuals acting on behalf of the school than cop/citizen searches.

And quite frankly, although I'm not normally one to cry foul based upon the actual outcome of a search, in this case I will since there was no pot. She was subjected to a humiliating strip search and there was nothing there!

A strip search! We're not talking a pat down search--a strip search. The only way that the serach could have been more invasive is if they'd performed an all out cavity search. And, from what my clients have told me--that ain't fun.


Good point. I suppose you'd have to be under arrest for a crime to be strip searched unless you were at a border or something.

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