Thursday, June 25, 2009

Some children win protection from stripsearches – now if we could just take the next logical step…

By a vote of 8 to 1, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that an unverified tip is not sufficient justification for school officials to stripsearch a student looking for drugs. The justices zeroed in on the fact that a stripsearch is a particularly traumatic experience for a child, so you really need to have something solid to go on before you inflict it on that child.

I'm sure my fellow liberals will be pleased, just as I am. But I'll bet some of them will be the same liberals who backed SB 1440, the Texas bill that would have run roughshod over children's Fourth Amendment rights in cases where the allegation was child abuse.

Though it didn't get much attention in the debate over SB 1440, all over the country, stripsearches just like the one that prompted the Supreme Court decision are a common part of child abuse investigations (CPS agencies prefer euphemisms like "visual inspection.") If the allegation is sexual abuse, the examination is likely to be a whole lot worse. And sadly, despite Gov. Rick Perry's veto of SB 1440, for families too poor to fight back, in Texas and everywhere else, their children can be stripsearched based on little more than a CPS worker's whim. Indeed, the issue arose in a Texas case just last month.

Defenders of unlimited CPS power will say child abuse investigations are different. They'll argue that in those cases, the people doing the searching are looking for bruises, not drugs, so they're doing it for the child's own good. (Of course, that's also what they say whenever they haul a child off to foster care.) But when school officials are stripsearching a student looking for drugs they're presumably doing it for the good of an entire school full of children, yet the Supreme Court still said no. And, of course, if the child has not been bruised – as is likely when there is no more than, say, an anonymous phone call alleging abuse -- then the only people who have hurt the child are the people who stripsearched her or him.

But the Supreme Court decision also showed, once again, that my fellow liberals don't have a monopoly on inconsistency. The only dissenter in the school stripsearching case was Justice Clarence Thomas.