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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 6, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 14
Go ahead and strip search suspects, Supreme Court says
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Go ahead and strip search suspects, Supreme Court says

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on April 2 that jail guards may subject people arrested for minor offenses to strip searches and body cavity searches.

The 5-4 ruling came in the case of a New Jersey man who was wrongly arrested on a warrant for an unpaid fine.

Albert Florence was forced to strip and submit to a body cavity search following his arrest on the warrant. It later transpired that Florence had, in fact, paid the fine, but even if he had not, failure to pay a fine is not a crime in New Jersey.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that when people are going to be put into the general jail population, '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 gave three reasons to justify invasive searches - detecting lice and contagious infections, looking for tattoos and other evidence of gang membership, and preventing smuggling of drugs and weapons.

In concurring opinions, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito said the decision left open the possibility of an exception to the rule and might not apply to someone held in isolation from other inmates.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer said strip searches improperly 'subject those arrested for minor offenses to serious invasions of their personal privacy.'

Breyer said jailers ought to have a reasonable suspicion someone may be hiding something before conducting a strip search. He was joined by Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayor, and Kagan.

Breyer also noted that inmates in the two New Jersey jails where Florence was strip-searched already have to submit to pat-down searches, pass through metal detectors, shower with delousing agents, and have their clothing searched.

Florence's ordeal began on a March evening in 2005, as he was going to dinner at his mother-in-law's house with his pregnant wife and 4-year-old child. His wife, April, was driving when a state trooper stopped the family SUV on a New Jersey highway.

Florence identified himself as the vehicle's owner and the trooper, checking records, found an outstanding warrant for an unpaid fine.

Florence, who is African-American, had been stopped several times before, and he carried a letter stating that the fine, for fleeing a traffic stop several years earlier, had been paid.

Nevertheless, the trooper handcuffed him and hauled him off to jail.

Florence was first strip-searched at the Burlington County Jail in southern New Jersey. Six days later, Florence had not yet received a hearing.

He was then transferred to another jail in Newark, where he was strip-searched again.

The next day, a judge dismissed all charges against him, and Florence decided to sue. Although he lost on the issue of the invasive searches, he may still pursue other claims, including that he was improperly arrested.

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