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U.S. Supreme Court Says "Yes" to Strip Searches for Any Arrest

Posted By Steven Brill || 4-Apr-2012

The Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 vote, just ruled that officials may conduct strip searches on anyone arrested for any offense before being jailed; this, even without suspicion of contraband.

Consider being strip-searched for speeding. This is exactly what happened to the plaintiffs in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders. All parties were arrested for what are considered minor offenses—walking a dog without a leash, speeding, lapsed child support payments.

The group challenged a New Jersey detention facility policy in which all arrested people must be strip-searched before being included with the inside population, said CNN. In one facility, this means, "a complete disrobing, followed by an examination of the nude inmate ... by the supervising officer, which is then followed by a supervised shower with a delousing agent," according to CNN. The booking process in another facility, "required groups of 30 to 40 arrestees to enter a large shower room, simultaneously remove all of their clothing, place it in boxes and then shower.”

The New York Times noted that such procedures are banned by statute in no less than 10 states and may contradict federal policies. Federally, the courts have long had mixed decisions; most prohibit strip searches without a reasonable suspicion of contraband.

In practice, this decision will sanction that policy that people may be strip-searched after arrests for violating a leash law, driving without a license and failing to pay child support. Citing examples from briefs submitted to the Supreme Court, Justice Breyer wrote that people have been subjected to "the humiliation of a visual strip-search" after being arrested for driving with a noisy muffler, failing to use a turn signal and riding a bicycle without an audible bell

This growing, unfortunate trend is contrary, however, to Fourth Amendment principles. In fact, Supreme Court Justice Breyer agrees. In his opinion, the Fourth Amendment should be understood to bar strip-searches of people arrested for minor offenses not involving drugs or violence, unless officials had a reasonable suspicion that they were carrying contraband. Sounds logical, yes?

Despite this, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, with the backing of the Court’s conservative wing, wrote that it is not the courts’ standpoint to oppose how correctional officials make decisions given that they must contend with potential weapons, drugs, and gang issues, wrote The Times. “Every detainee who will be admitted to the general population may be required to undergo a close visual inspection while undressed,” Justice Kennedy wrote, added The Times, which increases the flexibility to perform strip searches on any person to be jailed.

In doing so, the court has, said CNN, entered into “an abdication of its responsibilities”; to subject all persons to the humiliating practice “without any demonstrable need” and “without any evidence that such policies are effective is to perpetrate an injustice unworthy of our high court.”