Jail officials are justified in performing strip searches as a
reasonable precaution to maintain safety and order at their
facilities, the Supreme Court said Monday.
The routine strip search of those accused of minor offenses does
not violate the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and
seizures whenever the detainee is to be housed within a general jail
population, the US Supreme Court ruled on Monday.
In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court said that officials at a
jail or prison facility do not need individualized suspicion that a
detainee is concealing a weapon or contraband before conducting a
visual inspection of the most private areas of a person's body.
Instead, when an arrestee is to be confined within the general
population of prisoners, officials are fully justified in performing
the same strip search procedures for all prisoners as a reasonable
precaution to maintain safety and order at a detention facility, the
"The search procedures [at two jails in New Jersey] struck a
reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the needs of the
institutions," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority
Neither the Fourth Amendment's privacy protections nor the
Fourteenth Amendment's equal treatment mandate, he said, required
jail officials to alter their policy of demanding strip searches for
all detainees entering the general jail population.
Voting with Justice Kennedy were Chief Justice John Roberts and
Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito.
In a dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer denounced the routine strip
search of those accused of minor offenses. It is a "serious affront
to human dignity and to individual privacy," he said.
"In my view, such a search of an individual arrested for a minor
offense that does not involve drugs or violence ... is an
unreasonable search forbidden by the Fourth Amendment," Justice
Detention officials, he said, must first possess reasonable
suspicion that the arrestee is concealing drugs or other contraband
before conducting such an intrusive visual inspection.
"I have found no convincing reason indicating that, in the
absence of reasonable suspicion, involuntary strip searches of those
arrested for minor offenses are necessary in order to further the
penal interests," Breyer wrote. "And there are strong reasons to
believe they are not justified."
Breyer was joined in dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
The case, Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of Burlington
County (10-945), arises at a time when Americans are being asked to
increasingly forfeit their privacy to accommodate escalating
government security requirements.
Prospective travelers are routinely forced to undergo the
technological equivalent of a strip search as a condition of
undertaking a journey by commercial aircraft. Entry into many
government buildings now requires successful passage through a metal
detector and a physical search of purses and briefcases. Some
courthouses require visitors to sign in and present government-
issued photo identification before permitting entry.
Every year, an estimated 700,000 individuals are sent to jail for
relatively minor infractions.
Justice Alito, in a concurring opinion, said the majority
decision is limited only to those detainees who are to be housed in
a detention facility within the general population of prisoners.
"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," Alito said.
He added, however, "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. …