In a 5-4 ruling today, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of jails to strip search any new detainees, even those who have been arrested for minor offenses.
Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the ACLU, states that “today’s decision jeopardizes the privacy rights of millions of people who are arrested each year and brought to jail, often for minor offenses.”
Reuters notes the broad impact of the ruling "as nearly 14 million Americans spend time in jail or prison every year, including an estimated 700,000 people in jail for less serious misdemeanor offenses."
Today's decision rules against Albert Florence of New Jersey who was arrested in 2005 while a passenger in a vehicle. Police saw Florence had a bench warrant for an outstanding fine and arrested him, even though he carried documentation showing that the fine had in fact been paid. While detained, Florence says he was subject to two invasive strip searches. After being released, Florence sued, claiming his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.
Victoria Bekiempis writes that "something as minor as an unpaid parking ticket can require that you suffer an immense indignity -- including cavity searches -- without having been convicted of any crime."
In a dissenting opinion Justic Breyer writes that "such searches are inherently harmful, humiliating, and degrading," and cites instances of a nun, women during periods of lactation or menstruation and victims of sexual abuse undergoing such searches. He finds "no convincing reason indicating that, in the absence of reasonable suspicion, involuntary strip searches of those arrested for minor offenses are necessary in order to further the penal interests mentioned. And there are strong reasons to believe they are not justified."
Breyer's dissenting opinion was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan.
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Holding: Because the search procedures at the county jails struck a reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the needs of institutions, the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments do not require the framework and rules Florence proposes.
Judgment: Affirmed, 5-4, in an opinion by Justice Kennedy on April 2, 2012. The Chief Justice and Justices Scalia and Alito joined the opinion in full, while Justice Thomas joined as to all but Part IV. The Chief Justice and Justice Alito filed concurring opinions. Justice Breyer filed a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan.
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[Florence] was a passenger in his family's sport utility vehicle when it was stopped by a New Jersey state trooper in March 2005. His then-pregnant wife was driving and their 4-year-old son was in the back seat as they headed to a Sunday dinner.
Since Florence was the vehicle's registered owner, the officer ran his identification and discovered a bench warrant for an outstanding fine. He had already paid the fine and carried a letter attesting to that fact, since he claimed he had been stopped on several previous occasions. Nevertheless, the 35-year-old Bordentown resident was handcuffed and arrested, then taken to the jail in Burlington County, in the central part of the state.
Court records show Florence was subjected to an invasive strip and visual body-cavity search. He was then held for six days in the county lockup before being transferred to a Newark correctional facility, where, he claims, he was subjected to another more intrusive search before being placed in the general prison population.
"It was very disgusting. It was just a bad, bad experience," he told CNN's Kate Bolduan recently. "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."
The next day a magistrate freed Florence, confirming what he had insisted all along, that the fine had been paid.
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“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." “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 certain circumstances.”
“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.”
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