Academic journal article American Journal of Criminal Law

Florence and the Machine: The Supreme Court Upholds Suspicionless Strip Searches Resulting from Computer Error

Academic journal article American Journal of Criminal Law

Florence and the Machine: The Supreme Court Upholds Suspicionless Strip Searches Resulting from Computer Error

Article excerpt


This Article analyzes Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington, in which the Supreme Court considered whether the Fourth Amendment permitted corrections officials to automatically compel all new inmates to undergo a close visual observation while undressed before being admitted to a correctional facility's general population. The Florence Court ruled that jail and prison officials could strip search every new prisoner without having reasonable suspicion that the detainee might possess contraband and regardless of the nature of the charged offense, the inmate's lack of prior criminal history, or the prisoner's demeanor. This Article examines the concerns created by Florence's ruling, and asserts that, in emphasizing the need for deference toward corrections officials, Florence has promoted the desire for clear administrative rules over the Fourth Amendment's right to privacy. Further, Florence failed to fairly balance all of the interests implicated by strip searching new inmates, and therefore distorted the Fourth Amendment's own balancing analysis. Finally, Florence, in allowing strip searches-even of persons improperly arrested due to computer error- further erodes incentives for law enforcement to maintain accurate computer records.

I. Introduction...............174

II. Review of the Court's Fourth Amendment Precedent Regarding Strip Searches of Inmates and Other Security Issues...............176

III. Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington.....178

A. The Facts...............178

B. The Court's Opinion...............180

IV. Implications of Florence...............182

A. In Deferring to the Expertise of Corrections Officials, Florence Exalted Administrable Rules Over the Fourth Amendment Right to Privacy...............182

B. By Failing to Adequately Balance All Interests Implicated in Strip Searches of Arrestees Entering the General Jail Population, Florence Distorted Fourth Amendment Interest-Balancing Analysis...............187

C. In Allowing Strip Searches Based on Computer Error, Florence Continued to Undermine Law Enforcement Incentives to Maintain Accurate Computer Records...............190

V. Conclusion...............195

I. Introduction

On March 3, 2005, April and Albert Florence were driving to the home of April's mother to celebrate their purchase of a new home.1 A New Jersey state trooper stopped their car and arrested Albert Florence on a bench warrant that charged him with "a non-indictable variety of civil contempt."2 Despite April Florence's presentation of a document showing that the arrest was erroneous, the trooper continued with the arrest, relying on his computer system.3 At Burlington County Jail, Albert Florence had to remove all his clothing while an officer performed a "visual observation" of him to note any identifying marks or wounds.4 After six days in jail, Florence was transferred to the Essex County Correctional Facility, where officers ordered him and other detainees to strip and "open their mouths, lift their genitals, turn around, squat, and cough."5 When brought to court, a judge determined Florence was not wanted for arrest and ordered his immediate release.6

Florence filed suit contending jail officials at both facilities had violated his Fourth Amendment rights by subjecting him to suspicionless strip searches.7 The Supreme Court, when presented with the fact that a person was arrested and twice stripped of all clothing because of a computer error that remained in a statewide system for two years, seemingly gave the lapse little thought, writing it off as happening "for some unexplained reason."8 One explanation the Florence Court failed to consider was the signal the Court itself had sent law enforcement by refusing to exclude evidence improperly obtained due to computer error.9 In 1995, the Court in Arizona v. Evans upheld admission of evidence improperly obtained during a search incident to arrest based on a faulty computer report of a nonexistent warrant. …

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