Supreme Court Upholds Inmate Strip Searches Regardless of Charges

In a Supreme Court case that pit jail security needs against personal privacy rights, justices ruled 5-4 against Albert Florence, and said Florence’s civil rights were not violated when he was strip searched after being arrested on an out-of-date warrant for an unpaid fine. Margaret Warner and Marcia Coyle discuss the decision.

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    Finally tonight: The U.S. Supreme Court issued a split decision today in a case that pit jail security needs against personal privacy rights.

    Here's Margaret Warner.


    The justices ruled 5-4 that jail officials may strip search all incoming inmates no matter how minor the charges against them. The ruling came in the case of Albert Florence of New Jersey, who was strip-searched twice after being arrested on an out-of-date warrant for an unpaid fine.

    For more on the decision, we are joined, as always, by Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal.

    Marcia, welcome back.

  • MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal:

    Thank you.


    So, remind about the facts of this case. Mr. Florence was driving with his wife and son on the highway. They're stopped. And that's when the trouble began.


    The state trooper who stopped them got identification of the owner of the car, which was Mr. Florence, checked his records, found that there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. It was actually an erroneous warrant for an unpaid fine related to an incident seven years earlier.

    Mr. Florence had paid the fine. He was arrested because of the warrant and transported to the Burlington County Jail, where one of two strip searches ultimately occurred. The first strip search, he had to strip naked, lift his genitals, open his mouth, lift his tongue, turn around, lift his arms. He was held there for six days and then transported to the Essex County Jail. He was strip-searched again. The only difference was they added to this strip search squat and cough.


    So, Justice Kennedy wrote the majority, saying this wasn't an unreasonable or unconstitutional search.


    That was the basis of the claim that Mr. Florence brought. He brought a civil rights claim saying that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated by the strip search.

    Justice Kennedy basically gave four reasons for saying that this wasn't unreasonable. First, he said that the strip search allows prison officials to detect and deter contraband coming into a jail. It also prevents diseases from coming into the jail population, and helps prison officials identify and isolate gang members.

    Finally, Justice Kennedy said that sometimes people who are arrested for minor offenses turn out to be very dangerous. And he pointed to Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, who was stopped for driving without a license plate just hours after the Oklahoma City bombing.


    Now, what about — Justice Breyer wrote the dissent for four of the justices.


    Yes, he did.

    He was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan. And Justice Breyer felt that there just wasn't enough evidence here to justify strip-searching people who committed minor offenses. He said that reasonable suspicion should be required if the minor offense was related to drugs — or unrelated to drugs or violence.

    And he pointed to empirical evidence showing that these strip searches really don't end up identifying a lot of contraband.


    Now, two of the justices, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, joined in the majority opinion, but also wrote their own. What was that about? What was the thrust of theirs?


    They actually see a limit, a narrow opinion here.

    At the end of Justice Kennedy's opinion, Justice Kennedy said that the court didn't have to decide that a strip search of someone who is not going to be sent into the general prison population was reasonable or unreasonable. And, also, he said there may be concerns raised if there were touching of someone who was being strip-searched by prison officials.

    Justices — Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts said that — made it clear that the majority was not saying that it is always reasonable to strip-search someone. And they wanted to emphasize that, that there may be exceptions down the road.


    But bottom line here is that the majority rejected the contention that you can draw a line between who might be dangerous enough to be strip-searched and who wouldn't.


    That's true.

    And it's always been the case, I think, that the court has generally deferred to prison and jail officials when it comes to matters of security. And they did struggle with how you draw that line during the oral arguments in the case.


    So, what's going to be the practical effect of this? Justice Kennedy said in his opinion that something like 13 million Americans are actually taken into jail a year?


    That's right.

    And it's also estimated that 700,000 of those are arrested for minor offenses. There were at least seven federal appellate courts that had required reasonable suspicion for people arrested for minor offenses. That's no longer the case in those states in which the federal appellate courts operate.

    There are at least 10 states that had laws as well. Depending on how those laws are written, they may be open to challenge if they require reasonable suspicion. So, yes, it will have quite an impact. And we'll have to wait and see down the road if the court will recognize exceptions.


    Marcia Coyle, as always, thank you so much.


    My pleasure.