The Supreme Court handed down a new ruling today, taking a controversial stance in a (literally) sensitive area. The decision should make would-be criminals across the country wince.
In a split decision (is there any other kind these days?), the justices decided that law enforcement is justified in strip-searching anyone, for any offense, before admitting them to jail.
Understandably, a lot of people are butthurt about the 5–4 ruling…
Here is what the New York Times had to say about the ruling in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington:
The Supreme Court on Monday ruled by a 5-to-4 vote that officials may strip-search people arrested for any offense, however minor, before admitting them to jails even if the officials have no reason to suspect the presence of contraband.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, joined by the court’s conservative wing, wrote that courts are in no position to second-guess the judgments of correctional officials who must consider not only the possibility of smuggled weapons and drugs but also public health and information about gang affiliations.
This is just another reason to never, ever get arrested. Some people make prison jokes about a big guy named Bubba politely requesting that you pass the soap. That might not be a problem anymore, because correctional officers will do it first.
The case deals specifically with a man who was arrested and eventually strip-searched twice for what turned out to be false pretenses. This is a nice warm and fuzzy story for your Monday evening:
The Supreme Court case arose from the arrest of Albert W. Florence in New Jersey in 2005. Mr. Florence was in the passenger seat of his BMW when a state trooper pulled his wife, April, over for speeding. A records search revealed an outstanding warrant based on an unpaid fine. (The information was wrong; the fine had been paid.)
Mr. Florence was held for a week in jails in two counties, and he was strip-searched twice. There is some dispute about the details but general agreement that he was made to stand naked in front of a guard who required him to move intimate parts of his body. The guards did not touch him.
“Turn around,” Mr. Florence, in an interview last year, recalled being told by jail officials. “Squat and cough. Spread your cheeks.”
“I consider myself a man’s man,” said Mr. Florence, a finance executive for a car dealership. “Six-three. Big guy. It was humiliating. It made me feel less than a man.”
Guys at my high school made each other squat, cough, and spread their cheeks all the time. It was no big deal. (It was called football practice.)
Still, I thought it would be appropriate to make a list of all the things that might get you strip-searched now that the court has made this decision:
- Drunk in public? Spread ‘em.
- Forgot to pay child support? Cough.
- Unpaid parking tickets? Drop your drawers.
- Driving without a license? Bend over.
On one level, I understand how important it is that you don’t have people entering jail with any kind of weapons, drugs, or other contraband. You also don’t want prisoners with lice that can spread, and you don’t want to put rival gang members together. And it’s not as if jail is a pleasant place, or one that is particularly respectful of people’s privacy, anyway. Which is how Justice Kennedy explained the majority opinion:
The question here is whether undoubted security imperatives involved in jail supervision override the assertion that some detainees must be exempt from the more invasive search procedures at issue absent reasonable suspicion of a concealed weapon or other contraband. The Court has held that deference must be given to the officials in charge of the jail unless there is “substantial evidence” demonstrating their response to the situation is exaggerated.
It is not surprising that correctional officials have sought to perform thorough searches at intake for disease, gang affiliation, and contraband. Jails are often crowded, unsanitary, and dangerous places. 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.
I get it, Kennedy. But isn’t there a whole little thing called “innocent until proven guilty”? Shouldn’t your dignity and rights not get completely thrown to the dogs until it’s at least certain that you did anything wrong?
Justice Breyer said in his dissent:
I doubt that we seriously disagree about the nature of the strip search or about the serious affront to human dignity and to individual privacy that it presents. The basic question before us is whether such a search is nonetheless justified when an individual arrested for a minor offense is involuntarily placed in the general jail or prison population….
I have found no convincing reason indicating that, in the absence of reasonable suspicion, involuntary strip searches of those arrested for minor offenses are necessary in order to further the penal interests mentioned. And there are strong reasons to believe they are not justified.
This ruling is disappointing. The fact that jails are dirty and crowded shouldn’t be an excuse to mistreat American citizens; it should be an excuse to clean up the jails, so we don’t have to.
Justices Approve Strip-Searches for Any Offense [New York Times]
FLORENCE v. BOARD OF CHOSEN FREEHOLDERS OF COUNTY OF BURLINGTON ET AL. [Supreme Court]