Last August more than a dozen heavily armed sheriff’s deputies in Orange County, Florida, raided a handful of barbershops in the Orlando area. They did it again in September, and then again in October. Shears-wielding hair cutters and their customers were handcuffed and, in some cases, thrown to the floor at gunpoint. In all, nine shops were raided, and 37 people were arrested.
The raids at the mostly black- and Hispanic-owned shops had every appearance of being drug sweeps. Shop owners, barbers, and patrons told the Orlando Sentinel that police demanded to be shown where illegal drugs and weapons were hidden, then searched the shops from top to bottom. In the end, though, 34 of the 37 arrests were for “barbering without a license,” a misdemeanor for which only three people have ever served jail time in Florida. Two arrests were for misdemeanor marijuana possession. The raids netted just one arrest on felony drug and weapon charges.
The most troubling part of the raids: Although they were clearly intended to find drugs or weapons, the police didn’t bother to obtain search warrants. And they didn’t have to. Because the raids were conducted in conjunction with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, they were technically regulatory inspections, not searches. It’s not an uncommon practice, although the tactic is more typically used to raid bars and nightclubs.
Courts generally have allowed this ruse as long as authorities can make a plausible argument that the primary intent of the visit was to verify compliance with business regulations. As a result, business owners, their employees, and any customers unlucky enough to be present when a search takes place do not enjoy the Fourth Amendment protections that apply in the home. To its credit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has at least ruled it excessive to bring a SWAT team along on one of these regulatory inspections. r