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April 21: Strip Searching Students & False Claims Act

Case: Safford v. Redding

Date: Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Issue: Can school administrators who believe a student is in possession of illicit drugs conduct a strip search without violating the child's Fourth Amendment rights?

Background: School officials in Safford, AZ were frustrated over the emergence of drugs into its middle schools. Drug and alcohol issues had plagued its high schools for years but when the situation hit younger students, administrators felt they needed to do all they could to tamp down the problem.

In 2003, there were reports of alcohol use by a pair of students who would soon thereafter be identified for possessing prescription drugs in violation of school policy. After one student was pulled from class and found to have prescription-strength ibuprofen, she implicated her friend, Savana Redding, as the source of the pills. Redding was also pulled from class but when the vice principal questioned her; she denied any knowledge of the drugs. The school official then ordered a strip search in which the 13 year old was taken behind closed doors where a female nurse supervised the search. No drugs were found.

Redding's mother sued the school district for what was described as the "the most humiliating experience" of the young girl's life. In a 6-5 decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the search was unreasonable and that school officials "acted contrary to all reason and common sense as they trampled over [Redding's] legitimate and substantial interests in privacy and security of her person." It further ruled that the vice principal, school nurse and another school employee involved in the search are subject to civil litigation.

The school officials along with the school district have appealed to the Supreme Court. In their brief to the high court they describe the special legal protections schools are given in order to maintain safe and effective learning environments. Court precedents hold that while students don't totally forego their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door they are not afforded the same protections as adults elsewhere in society.

The officials contend the search was justified based on their "reasonable grounds for suspecting that it would turn up evidence that [Redding] was violating Safford's policies" and out of fear that serious harm could come to her or other students who used the illicit drugs. The young girl, now 19 and attending college, and her mother claim the school officials based their decision to conduct a strip search on nothing more than "the vague and uncorroborated accusation by an unreliable juvenile."

The Court asked the government for its views on the case and has been given time during oral arguments to articulate its view that the search was unconstitutional but that the school officials who were sued should be immune from the litigation.

Case: Eisenstein v. New York City

Date: Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Issue: Whether a 30-day or 60-day deadline to file an appeal applies to a specific kind of legal action allowed under the False Claims Act.

Background: A provision of the False Claims Act allows for private citizens or interests to file a lawsuit on behalf of the government. They are also entitled to a small percentage of any monetary awards. During appeals of these cases the law proscribes two deadlines depending upon the government’s appearance as an actual party to the case. If so, then 60 days are allowed to file an appeal. If not, then only half that time is allotted.

In this case from New York City, the federal government decided not to be a named party. The appeal was filed in 54 days which the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that to be out of time. In similar cases, other appellate courts have ruled that because the government would stand to be the primary beneficiary of any favorable judgment or "real party in interest" then the 60 day timeframe was appropriate—even if the government wasn't actually a named party to the case. The Second Circuit disagreed with that analysis.

Irwin Eisenstein and four fellow municipal co-workers claim the city unlawfully charges non-resident workers a fee that equates to a city income tax. They argue that since non-resident workers can deduct this fee on their federal tax returns, their taxable income is lower than it would be otherwise. They contend the city is responsible for the loss of federal tax revenue.

The trial judge who heard the case dismissed the claim and the timing of the appeal is the issue before the Supreme Court. The justices will not rule on the merits of Eisenstein's case.