Monday, April 2, 2012

United States Supreme Court Extends Strip Search Authority

In a much-anticipated opinion today, the United States Supreme Court in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington (NJ), upheld the authority of jail authorities to strip search a person accused of a minor crime.

The case involved a claim for damages by Albert Florence, an African-American man stopped for a traffic infraction who was then taken to jail because of a years-old failure to appear charge.  Upon his detention at two different jails, Mr. Florence was stripped searched at each. More explanation from Florence and his attorney is in the video below:


Writing for the 5-4 majority, Kennedy's relatively brief opinion could be summed up in a single word: deference. 

Two of the five justices in the majority - - - Alito and Roberts - - - wrote separate concurring opinions that stressed the limits of the Court's opinion.  Alito phrased it thusly:

    I join the opinion of the Court but emphasize the limits of today‚Äôs holding. The Court holds that jail administrators may require all arrestees who are committed to the general population of a jail to undergo visual strip searches not involving physical contact by correctionsofficers. To perform the searches, officers may direct the arrestees to disrobe, shower, and submit to a visual inspection. As part of the inspection, the arrestees may be required to manipulate their bodies.
    Undergoing such an inspection is undoubtedly humiliating and deeply offensive to many, but there are reasonable grounds for strip searching arrestees before they are admitted to the general population of a jail.

He later added that:

It is important to note, however, that the Court does not hold that it is always reasonable to conduct a full strip search of an arrestee whose detention has not been reviewed by a judicial officer and who could be held in available facilities apart from the general population.

Justice Breyer, dissenting and joined by Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, provides numerous examples of problematical, humiliating, and unnecessary strip searches, noting that the majority failed to discuss specifics.  Instead, Breyer writes, the "majority is left with the word of prison officials in support of its contrary proposition. And though that word is important, it cannot be sufficient." 

But if the Court's single word is "deference," then of course the jail officials word is almost always sufficient.


Due Process (Substantive), Fourteenth Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Sexuality, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink

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What do you make of the Roberts concurrence: "The Court is nonetheless
wise to leave open the possibility of exceptions, to ensure that we 'not embarrass the future.'" Seems like sort a loaded statement coming on the heels on the health care arguments.

Posted by: Eric Washer | Apr 5, 2012 9:01:37 AM

I have heard a lot about this decision. The one thing I have yet to hear is the fact the Court upheld the lower courts ruling. So the question I have had, is was this the right time to bring this case? With the current makeup of the Supreme Court, it does not seem like the ruling is off base, at least with this particular court. Why bring this case now?

Posted by: Michael Rehm | Apr 10, 2012 6:10:03 PM

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