In a recent ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a New Jersey man did not have his constitutional rights violated when he was strip-searched at two different jails when taken into custody for one minor offense. Albert Florence had not been arrested for violent offenses, but as noted by USA Today, was arrested for a fine, which Florence had actually already paid.
The ruling divided the court and seems to be dividing other legal professionals and the general public over the right of officials at local jails to strip-search those arrested for non-violent offenses.
The conflict between privacy and security
In writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that, “Courts must defer to the judgment of correctional officials unless the record contains substantial evidence showing their policies are an unnecessary or unjustified response to problems of jail security.” In his dissenting opinion, as stated by NJ.com, Justice Stephen G. Breyer referred to a study consisting of 23,000 people admitted to a New York Jail over a four year period, in which when reasonable suspicion was used as a reason for strip-search, only one instance of contraband would have gotten into the jail.
One of the primary issues then, over strip-searches being conducted on inmates who have been arrested for relatively minor and non-violent offenses is the security of jails versus the issue of privacy of those for whom reasonable suspicion that the detainee may convey contraband into a local jail is absent, in spite of Kennedy’s further comment that “The seriousness of an offense is a poor predictor of who has contraband.” Justice Breyer argued that strip-searches such as the ones where Florence was commanded to expose his open mouth, ears, nose and genitals “subject those arrested for minor offenses to serious invasions of their personal privacy.”
While the majority argues that jailers have a right to strip-searches as a means of ensuring security, others argue that “reasonable suspicion” should exist and be the indicating factor for making a decision to strip-search a detainee.
Politics implicated in the decision
The decision of the High Court has been called “political” by some individuals including the subject of the case, Albert Florence. Florence said, after reading the decision of the Supreme Court on his case, “I read it…It seems political, which in all honesty, I think it is. His attorney, Susan Chana Lask was quoted by the Chicago Sun-Times as saying, “The 5-4 decision was as close as we could get…in this political climate with recent law for indefinite detention of citizens without trial that shaves away our constitutional rights every day.”
The case may still not be over as Florence and his attorney are contemplating their next steps.
Implication of the ruling for future detainees
Florence says he worries about his children with a ruling such as this, and that all American citizens should fight the ruling made against him. The ruling will undoubtedly mean many more strip-searches without the existence of reasonable suspicion, which in turn, may result in more cases similar to that of Florence reaching all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Susan Lask may, in fact, ask the Court to re-hear the case. This is permitted but is a request rarely granted.
There are also questions whether the strip-searching of inmates for minor offenses may be racial. Florence, a black American, had in his possession at the time he was arrested, written records from the courts indicating the fine was paid. The arresting officers ignored the papers. The State Police were already operating under court order to provide federal monitors for the assessment of traffic stops of minorities because of past allegations of racial profiling in traffic stops. Florence, however, is not alleging racial motivation behind the initial traffic stop.
The future for detainees in custody for minor offenses being strip-searched in local jails may not yet be over as this and other cases like it are challenged in the courts.