Washington - Jailers may perform invasive strip searches on people arrested even for minor offenses, an ideologically divided Supreme Court ruled Monday, the conservative majority declaring that security trumps privacy in an often dangerous environment.
Albert Florence was was making monthly payments on a civil fine and briefly fell behind in 2003. A warrant was issued for his arrest. Even though Florence promptly corrected the situation by paying within a week, the warrant improperly remained on his record. In 2005, a state trooper pulled Florence and his wife over in Burlington County and proceeded to arrest him based on what he saw on the computer readout. Florence was held for six days at the Burlington County Detention Center before being transferred to the Essex County Correctional Facility.
In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled against Florence who was strip searched in two county jails following his arrest on a warrant for an unpaid fine that he had, in reality, paid.
The decision resolved a conflict among lower courts about how to balance security and privacy. Prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, lower courts generally prohibited routine strip searches for minor offenses. In recent years, however, courts have allowed jailers more discretion to maintain security, and the high court ruling ratified those decisions.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said the circumstances of the arrest were of little importance. Instead, Kennedy said, Florence's entry into the general jail population gave guards the authorization to force him to strip naked and expose his mouth, nose, ears and genitals to a visual search in case he was hiding anything.
"Courts must defer to the judgment of correctional officials unless the record contains substantial evidence showing their policies are an unnecessary or unjustified response to problems of jail security," Kennedy said.
Supreme Court ruling Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington et al.
The Story Behind Florence v. Burlington (video) http://vimeo.com/30161234
ACLU says Supreme Court decision upholding strip searches puts privacy rights of
millions of Americans at risk.
“Today’s decision jeopardizes the privacy rights of millions of people who
are arrested each year and brought to jail, often for minor offenses,” said
Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the ACLU. “Being forced to strip naked is a
humiliating experience that no one should have to endure absent reasonable
suspicion. Jail security is important, but it does not require routinely strip
searching everyone who is arrested for any reason, including traffic violations,
and who may be in jail for only a few hours. ”
“The practical impact of the decision remains to be seen,” Shapiro added.
“Ten states prohibit strip searching minor offenders as a matter of state law,
and those laws are unaffected by today’s opinion. In addition, the Court was
careful to recognize that strip searches may still be unconstitutional under
“The best way to preserve the privacy of the millions of Americans who are
arrested each year for minor offenses,” Shapiro said, “is not to put them in
jail in the first place. Instead, we should be using cheaper and more effective
alternatives to incarceration.”