Supreme Court Approves Strip Searches for Minor Offenses
Richey, Warren, The Christian Science Monitor
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 court said.
"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 opinion.
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 Breyer said.
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. …