The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that jailhouse strip-searches are legal regardless of the offense for which the accused was arrested. That is, officials can strip-search anyone in jail for any reason. The decision was 5-4, with the split along ideological lines. Justice Anthony Kennedy voted with the four conservative justices, while the dissent came unanimously from the liberal wing.
The ruling arose from Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington. In that case, Albert W. Florence, a New Jersey car dealership executive, was in the passenger seat of a car pulled over for speeding and was subsequently arrested for allegedly failing to pay a years-old fine. During the course of his week in incarceration, Florence was held in two jails in two different counties and strip-searched twice.
In the majority opinion penned by Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court suggested that jailhouse officials' judgment must be given substantial leeway to maintain "safety and order at detention centers," further noting that "the seriousness of an offense is a poor predictor of who has contraband, and it would be difficult to determine whether individual detainees fall within the proposed exemption." In his opinion, Justice Kennedy cited Bell v. Wolfish (1979), a case in which the court ruled that prisoners could be strip-searched after meeting with visitors. It is worth noting that inmates are already required to undergo pat-down searches, metal detection, clothing searches and delousing showers.
We disagree with the court's decision and believe that the minority opinion, written by Justice Stephen Breyer, would have been the correct ruling. Breyer wrote that the strip-searches are a blatant violation of an individual's Fourth Amendment rights. The Fourth Amendment explicitly bars "unreasonable searches," and getting strip-searched for a parking violation or for not following leash laws certainly seems unreasonable.
Breyer further wrote that unreasonable searches, as defined by the Fourth Amendment, should include all minor offenses not involving drugs or violence unless officials have reasonable suspicion of contraband. The court's decision means that any jailhouse official may, on a whim, legally strip-search any incoming inmate.
Florence's description of his experience underscores the violation of his personal rights. "It was humiliating. It made me feel like less of a man," he said. By ruling that law enforcement officials do not need to prove there is a reasonable basis to conduct strip-searches, the Supreme Court leaves the door open for potential humiliation and abuse.
Finally, it's worth pointing out that Florence should not even have been in jail, much less forced to undergo two strip-searches. The warrant that formed the basis of his arrest was outdated. He had paid the fine for which he was arrested on time. In this case, an innocent man arrested on a trivial charge was humiliated twice — and similar incidents may occur thousands of times nationwide. Apparently, that's a price five Supreme Court justices are willing to pay.