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Strip search of student found to be unconstitutionally excessive

 

In DH v. Clayton County School District, Defendant McDowell appealed the district court’s finding that as assistant principal his strip search of a minor student was a violation of clearly established constitutional law. McDowell, an assistant Principal at a public school in Georgia, conducted a strip search of a 12-year old 7th grader in an office, based upon reports and his individualized suspicion that DH possessed marijuana at school DH. Prior to the search McDowell discovered marijuana in the backpack of another student who said that DH his classmate also had marijuana. In response to D.V.’s implication of DH, McDowell searched DH, starting with his backpack. When no marijuana was found, he had DH remove his clothes down to his underpants. When nothing was found in his clothes McDowell instructed him to remove his underpants exposing his genitals to McDowell. Another officer was present along with the other student suspects. No marijuana was found.

McDowell raised the defense of qualified Immunity. First the court considers whether McDowell’s search deprived DH of a constitutional right. The second determination was whether the law was clearly established so as to justify imposition of §1983 liability. In determining whether a search of a student violates the Fourth amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure  the court made a two-prong inquiry. First, it asks whether the search is justified at its inception and there are reasonable grounds for suspect in that the search will turn up evidence of a violation of law or school rules, and second, whether the scope of the search is reasonably related to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.

Here the court found the factual record provided the distinct elements of justification that were required to conduct a strip search of DH given the discovery of well-hidden marijuana, the implication of DH by another student and the fact that marijuana was hidden in the waistband of another student’s underpants that day all of which established a reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search would turn up evidence that DH was violation the law. Therefore the appellate court found the strip search was justified in its inception.

However, the appeals court found that McDowell’s strip search of DH was unconstitutionally excessive in scope by having him strip fully naked in front of his peers. McDowell’s decision to have DH fully removes all of his clothing in front of DH’s peers bore no ration relationship to the purpose of the search itself. McDowell was no more likes to find marijuana on DH by performing a fully nude strip search of DH in from of his peers than he would have had he employed a substantially less invasive means. Having him remove his underwear in front of his peers unnecessarily subject DH to a significantly higher level of intrusion and the court found the search excessive to force DH stand in front of his peers fully nude.

The appeals court concluded that a reasonable official in McDowell’s position would not have believed that requiring DH to strip down to his fully naked body in from of sever of his peers was lawful in light of clearly established principle that a student strip search if justified in its inception must be 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.