Federal appeals court rules inmate strip searches constitutional

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Tuesday that strip searching all incoming inmates does not violate the Fourth Amendment [text] and is necessary to prevent illegal substances from entering prisons. San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey had enacted the policy to strip search new inmates in response the rising amount of drugs and weapons being brought into jails. The court found the policy to be reasonable, considering the nature of US prison system and the documented evidence of illegal materials entering prisons. The court ruled:


[W]e conclude that San Francisco's policy requiring strip searches of all arrestees classified for custodial housing in the general population was facially reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. ... Because the policy did not violate plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment rights, we reverse the district court's denial of Sheriff Hennessey's motion for summary judgment.

The decision overturned [San Francisco Chronicle report] a 1984 decision by the Ninth Circuit that limited searches to inmates accused of violent or drug-related crimes.

The court's willingness to overturn its previous decision highlights the growing problems association with drugs and US prisons. The large number of arrests for drug-related crimes has led to prison overcrowding [JURIST news archive] throughout the country, but particularly in California. Last month, a panel of federal judges approved [JURIST report] a revised plan filed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) [official website] for reducing the prison population. The CDCR filed the plan in November after the panel rejected the first plan because it did not comply with a federal court order to reduce the prison population [JURIST reports]. The original plan did not include the legislative enactments but provided various ways of reducing overcrowding, including transferring more prisoners to out-of-state prisons, GPS monitoring of inmates who violate parole, commuting sentences of inmates who are eligible for deportation, and building new facilities or converting unused space.

 

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