Routine Jail Strip Searches Held Constitutional by Supreme Court

Law Office of Philip R. Nathe

The United States Supreme Court recently reviewed what limitations the constitution imposes on searches of those detained in jail while their cases are processed. The issue was whether those arrested for minor offenses, such as traffic violations must undergo invasive searches when no reasonable suspicion exists that they have weapons or drugs.

In the Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington 5-4 decision issued in early April, the justices found that strip searches or as the justices described them “close visual inspection[s] while undressed” could be completed for all detainees.

In the Florence case the arrest was premised on a mistake. Albert Florence was sentenced to pay a fine in monthly installments, but a warrant issued after he fell behind on his payments. A week after the warrant was issued, he paid the balance. However, the warrant was never removed from the system.

Several years later, Florence was arrested on the outstanding warrant during a routine stop for a traffic violation. As part of the booking process at two county jails, Florence underwent two invasive strip searches. Florence was released the day after he was admitted to the second facility and the charges were dropped.

New Jersey and many states across the nation have similarly invasive booking procedures for all detainees.

The Supreme Court held that the invasive search was appropriate even though Florence was arrested for a minor offense. The Justices focused on the safety of guards, which gave authorization for a visual search exposing mouth, nose, ears and genitals to make sure he was not hiding anything. The dissent stated that jailers ought to have a reasonable suspicion that someone was hiding something before doing a strip search.

Justice Breyer writing for the dissent stated that someone like Florence was “often stopped and arrested unexpectedly. And they consequently will have little opportunity to hide things in their body cavities.”

In Illinois, state law currently does not allow for strip searches when a person is arrested for a traffic, regulatory or misdemeanor offense unless reasonable suspicion exists to believe that the person is hiding a weapon or a controlled substance. However, the recent Supreme Court decision could allow for Illinois officials to move toward a blanket policy of strip searches for all detainees.

Source: Associated Press, “Supreme Court OKs routine jailhouse strip searches,” Mark Sherman, Apr. 2, 2012.

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Routine Jail Strip Searches Held Constitutional by Supreme Court