Supreme Court upholds jailhouse strip searches

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled 5-4 [opinion, PDF] Monday in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that a suspect's Fourth Amendment [text] rights were not violated when he was strip searched upon entering jail. Petitioner Albert Florence was arrested in New Jersey after being pulled over when it was discovered that there was an outstanding warrant against him for failure to pay a fine, which is considered a non-criminal offense in New Jersey. He produced a letter stating that he had paid the fine, but the officer made the arrest anyway. Florence was transported to a local jail where he was forced to strip naked for inspection. He was transferred to another correctional facility a week later and was again subjected to a strip search. Florence later filed suit under 42 USC § 1983 [text], alleging that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated. The US District Court for the District of New Jersey granted summary judgment for the plaintiff, but the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed [opinion, PDF]. In an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court affirmed the Third Circuit:

The case turns in part on the extent to which this Court has sufficient expertise and information in the record to mandate, under the Constitution, the specific restrictions and limitations sought by those who challenge the visual search procedures at issue. In addressing this type of constitutional claim 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. That necessary showing has not been made in this case.
Chief Justice John Roberts filed a concurring opinion, noting that, "the Court does not foreclose the possibility of an exception to the rule it announces." Justice Samuel Alito also filed a concurring opinion to "emphasize the limits of today's holding." Justice Stephen Breyer filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, in which he argued that the jail's policy "would subject those arrested for minor offenses to serious invasions of their personal privacy."

The court heard arguments [JURIST report] in October. Counsel for Florence argued that the search was illegal because it was not based on reasonable suspicion, but was based on a jail policy that subjected every arrestee to a strip search. Counsel stated that the case was distinct from the situation in Bell v. Wolfish [opinion], where the court ruled that the possible innocence of arrestees should not prevent officials from performing searches in order to maintain their facility. Counsel made a distinction between major versus minor offenders, arguing that strip searches are more warranted for offenders who are "inclined to violence," and called any argument finding suspicion that Florence was smuggling contraband "laugh out loud funny." Counsel requested that the jail's blanketed policy be replaced by a case-by-case review. Counsel for the facilities argued that there was no reasonable suspicion requirement in the case because the search was more cursory and not invasive, like a cavity search. Counsel further argued that the classification of the offense should not matter because minor offenders could just as easily as major offenders smuggle contraband into the prison population. Counsel asked that the court give deference to the judgment of prison officials as to what is appropriate.

 

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