Forum Center, 4/10/12

Supreme Court Says “Spread ‘Em”!

In 2005, Albert W. Florence was a passenger in an automobile driven by his wife when their car was pulled over for speeding.  Florence was arrested during the traffic stop by a New Jersey state trooper who checked a statewide computer database and found a bench warrant issued for Florence’s arrest after he failed to appear at a hearing to enforce a fine. He was initially detained in the Bur­lington County Detention Center and later in the Essex County Cor­rectional Facility. Florence was released once it was determined that the fine had been paid. At the first jail, Florence, like every incoming detainee, had to shower with a delousing agent and was checked for scars, marks, gang tattoos and contraband as he disrobed. Florence claimed that he also had to open his mouth, lift his tongue, hold out his arms, turn around and lift his genitals. At the second jail, Florence was forced to repeat many of the same procedures.

Albert Florence brought an action in federal court against the government entities conducting the body search during his arrest, alleging both Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations.  He also argued that per­sons arrested for minor offenses can not be subjected to invasive searches unless prison officials have reason to suspect concealment of weapons, drugs or other contraband. The trial court granted him sum­mary judgment, ruling that “strip-searching” non-indictable offenders without reasonable suspicion violates the Fourth Amendment. The Third Circuit reversed the trial court eventually bringing the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court last week ruled all persons arrested may be subjected to visual body searches when entering the general population of a jail, without considering the severity of the offense. The court did not approve jailers touching the private parts of all arrestees, however they did approve arrestees being made to touch themselves and move their private parts in front of jailers. The five justices approving the ruling were Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., Antonin Scalia, Samuel A. Alito, Jr. and Clarence Thomas.

The Justices claimed that allowing the intrusive search was a matter of personal safety of the jailers and the other inmates at the facility. In his concurring opinion Justice Alito wrote: “there is a serious danger that some detainees will attempt to smuggle weapons, drugs, or other contraband into the jail. Some detainees may have lice, which can easily spread to others in the facility, and some detainees may have diseases or injuries for which the jail is required to provide medical treatment. In addition, if a detainee with gang-related tattoos is inadvertently housed with detainees from a rival gang, violence may ensue.”

The four dissenting Justices wrote that those confined in prison still retained basic constitutional rights. “Prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution […] A strip search that involves a stranger peering without consent at a naked individual, and in particular at the most private portions of that person’s body, is a serious invasion of privacy. [...] The basic question before us is whether such a search is nonetheless justified when an individual arrested for a minor offense is involuntarily placed in the general jail or prison population.” The dissent argued that such searches should not be allowed for all minor, non-drug, non-violent offenses.

Forum Question of the Week:

Do you agree with the Court’s decision to allow strip searches for any arrestee, including those arrested for minor offenses and who are being placed in a general jail population?

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