NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

High Court: School Violated Teen's Rights


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


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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.