Jailhouse Strip Searches Backed by U.S. Supreme Court Ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court backed the use of strip searches of newly arrested people, saying that even people held for minor offenses might be smuggling in weapons or drugs.

Ruling 5-4 in a New Jersey case that pitted security concerns against privacy rights, the justices today said that when new inmates are being admitted into the general population of a jail, officials don’t need individualized suspicion before conducting a close inspection of private body parts.

“Jails are often crowded, unsanitary and dangerous places,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court. “There is a substantial interest in preventing any new inmate, either of his own will or as a result of coercion, from putting all who live or work at these institutions at even greater risk when he is admitted to the general population.”

Two members of the majority -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito -- wrote separately to say the decision was a limited one. Roberts said the ruling left open the possibility of exceptions, while Alito said people arrested for minor offenses can argue before a judge that they should have been held separately from the general population and spared a strip search. Jails admit more than 13 million people each year, Kennedy said.

The case split the court along ideological lines, with Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joining the majority. In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the strip-search policy reviewed by the court “would subject those arrested for minor offenses to serious invasions of their privacy.”

Change in Law

The ruling marks a change in the law in much of the country. Seven federal appeals courts had ruled that jails need “reasonable suspicion” before conducting a strip search of a person arrested for a minor infraction, Breyer said. Some appeals courts began giving jails more leeway after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

At the same time, at least 10 states won’t be directly affected because their own laws bar strip searches in the absence of reason to suspect the smuggling of contraband.

Today’s ruling is a victory for the Obama administration, which contended that prison and jail officials need wide latitude to fashion security and safety policies.

It is a defeat for Albert W. Florence, who claimed in a lawsuit that he was strip-searched twice during his week behind bars in two New Jersey counties, Burlington and Essex. Florence was jailed following his arrest for failing to pay a years-old fine, which in reality he had already paid.

Roberts and Alito

Lawyers on both sides of the case called the ruling a narrow one, in large part because of the separate opinions of Roberts and Alito. Roberts highlighted that Florence was detained based on an arrest warrant, not for a minor traffic offense, and that jail officials lacked any alternative to holding him with the rest of the inmates.

“It is important for me that the court does not foreclose the possibility of an exception to the rule it announces,” Roberts wrote.

Alito said most of those arrested for minor offenses aren’t dangerous and are never sentenced to incarceration. For those people, “admission to the general jail population, with the concomitant humiliation of a strip search, may not be reasonable, particularly if an alternative procedure is feasible,” he wrote.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons already segregates people arrested for minor offenses from the general population, Alito wrote.

Opinion Limits

“It’s clear this opinion doesn’t authorize strip searches of all offenders under all circumstances,” Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the New York-based American Civil Liberties Union, said in an interview.

Robert Spence, a lawyer representing the National Sheriffs’ Association, said the ruling will provide valuable guidance for jail officials.

“It appropriately gives deference to the officials who operate jails to establish policies that will provide a safer environment for those detained in our nation’s jails, as well as for those who work there,” Spence said in an e-mail.

In his majority opinion, Kennedy said people arrested for minor offenses “have tried to smuggle prohibited items into jail, sometimes by using their rectal cavities or genitals for the concealment.” He pointed to examples of newly arrested people hiding drugs, matches and tattoo needles.

No Clear Example

Breyer said jail officials in those cases might have had reason to suspect contraband was being hidden. He said the majority didn’t cite any clear example of smuggling by a new inmate “that could not have been discovered if the jail was employing a reasonable suspicion standard.”

The Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that inmates could be subjected to a body-cavity search after they met with visitors. That wouldn’t violate the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection against “unreasonable searches,” the court said.

During arguments in October, both sides in the case sought to narrow the issues. The lawyer for the two counties said jail officials might be barred from touching inmates during a search.

Florence’s attorney said jails could perform body-cavity inspections on certain categories of inmates, such as those charged with violent offenses. He also said all new inmates could be required to strip naked and shower in front of guards, as long as officials stopped short of a close-range search of a prisoner’s private parts.

Wife and Daughter

According to his complaint, Florence was riding with his wife and 4-year-old child in a BMW sports-utility vehicle when a New Jersey state trooper stopped the family for a traffic offense.

The complaint said the trooper discovered that Florence was wanted on a bench warrant in Essex County. The officer handcuffed Florence and placed him under arrest, allegedly ignoring an official document the man presented to show that he had paid the fine. Florence said he carried the letter because of a tendency of officers to pull over black men driving nice cars.

Florence was driven to the Burlington County Jail, where he said he was taken into a stall with a partially opened curtain, ordered to disrobe and made to lift his tongue, arms and genitals in front of an officer. He said he was transferred to an Essex County facility six days later and strip-searched again, this time along with four other men.

$1,310 Fine

Florence said he saw a judge for the first time the following day and was ordered to be immediately released.

The original fine against Florence stemmed from a 1998 guilty plea for fleeing a traffic stop, according to Burlington County. Florence eventually paid $1,310, the county said.

A Philadelphia-based federal appeals court said the counties’ policies were reasonable ways to prevent prisoners from smuggling in weapons and drugs.

Today’s ruling doesn’t preclude Florence from pressing ahead with other claims based on his time in jail.

The case is Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington, 10-945.

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