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Supreme Court rules strip-searches allowed for any offense

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In what's sure to provoke a good deal of discussion, the Supreme Court ruled today, in a five-to-four vote, that officials have carte blanche to invasively perform strip-searches on people arrested for any offense, no matter how insignificant, before admitting them to jail, favoring security needs over privacy rights.

Now, thanks to the court's conservative wing, along with Justice Anthony Kennedy, an unpaid parking ticket could lead to a loss of human dignity. As Kennedy put it in his majority opinion, "courts must defer to the judgment of correctional officers unless the record contains substantial evidence showing their policies are an unnecessary or unjustified response to problems of jail security." So of the thirteen million or so people admitted to U.S. jails each year, "every detainee who will be admitted to the general population may be required to undergo a close visual inspection while undressed."

Representing the dissenting minority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer said strip searches "subject those arrested for minor offenses to serious invasions of their personal privacy," and that jailers should have a reasonable suspicion that contraband is being hidden before getting their frisk on. 

The impetus for the case was the 2005 arrest of New Jersey resident Albert W. Florence, after his pregnant wife April was pulled over for speeding. Mr. Florence was taken in for an outstanding warrant (which it turned out was erroneous, the fine had actually been paid), and ended up being detained for a week in two different jails, where he was strip-searched twice. As Florence related:

"It was very disgusting. It was just a bad, bad experience. I was just told, 'Do as you're told.' Wash in this disgusting soap and obey the directions of the officer who was instructing me to turn around, lift my genitals up, turn around, and squat."

Florence, naturally, then sued, claiming that his Fourth Amendment rights, which protect against unreasonable searches and seizures, had been violated. But a Philadelphia federal appeals court ruled last year that the blanket search policy was proper.

In our post-9/11, Patriot Act world, the court's ruling is worrisome, but not surprising; once again, we see the consequences of previous presidential appointments. But there was an encouraging statement from Chief Justice John Roberts, who, alluding to a previous decision, said that exceptions to the ruling were still a possibility, "to ensure that we 'not embarrass the future.'"

The Story Behind Florence v. Burlington from National Constitution Center on Vimeo.