SCOTUS Upholds Pre-Jail Strip Searches for Everyone, No Matter How Minor the Offense


Today the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment allows strip searches of "every detainee who will be admitted to the general population" of a jail, no matter how how minor his offense. The case was brought by Albert W. Florence, a New Jersey man who was arrested during a traffic stop because a database erroneously showed that he had failed to pay a fine. Florence was held for a week in two different jails and strip-searched twice before the matter was cleared up. The five justices in the majority, in an opinion by Anthony Kennedy, deferred to the judgment of correctional officials concerning which policies are appropriate to prevent weapons and other contraband from entering jails, noting that the hazard does not necessarily hinge on the seriousness of a prisoner's crime. The four other justices, in a dissenting opinion by Stephen Breyer, argued that the Fourth Amendment's ban on "unreasonable searches" requires an exception to the general strip search rule when a prisoner is charged with "a minor offense that does not involve drugs or violence," such as "a traffic offense, a regulatory offense, an essentially civil matter, or any other such misdemeanor," unless "prison authorities have reasonable suspicion to believe that the individual possesses drugs or other contraband." The New York Times reports that "at least seven" federal appeals courts had reached a similar conclusion, although in this case the 3rd Circuit ruled otherwise.

You may recall that in 2001 the Supreme Court said the Fourth Amendment does not preclude "a warrantless arrest for a minor criminal offense, such as a misdemeanor seatbelt violation punishable only by a fine." Today's ruling not only magnifies the potential humiliation associated with such an arrest; it enhances the already considerable power that police officers have to conduct searches during routine traffic stops. In states (such as Texas) that give police discretion to arrest people for minor traffic offenses such as failing to buckle your seat belt, officers can present drivers with a choice: a search of your car now or a search of your bodily orifices later. 

The Supreme Court's decision in Florence v. New Jersey is here (PDF).