Florence vs. County of Burlington: United States Supreme Court Rules Strip Searches in Jails are always Legal
Recently, I had a client who was charged with with simple possession of marijuana. He was actually arrested for an outstanding traffic ticket attachment when the deputies allegedly found a joint on him after a strip search. My first thought in this case was, “Is it legal for a jail to strip search someone who has been arrested for a simple traffic ticket?” The deputies actions seemed a little overzealous to me. It sounded like a 4th Amendment violation against unlawful search and seizure.
To my surprise, I was wrong. The answer, thanks to a narrow Supreme Court decision in 2012, is “yes”: Whether you are checking into the jail for 12 hours or being incarcerated for 12 years, authorities have a legal right to conduct a strip search. The Supreme Court reached this conclusion by a 5-4 ruling in the case of Florence v. County of Burlington.
Florence v. County of Burlington stemmed from the arrest of a New Jersey man accused of failing to pay a fine – even though, as it turned out, he had paid the fine and the arrest warrant was an error. Media accounts suggest that Mr. Albert Florence, a black man who is employed as a finance executive, was forced to stand bare in front of a guard, who then required him to move certain private body parts. Mr. Florence was reportedly humiliated.
In their ruling, the justices reasoned that permitting strip searches prevents inmates and arrestees from smuggling contraband, thereby protecting the welfare of the jail/prison population as well as the safety of the guards and other personnel. While there is a kernel of truth to this, there is a strong flip side to the issue: Research shows that more than 95 percent of the time, someone entering the jail is not possessing contraband, rendering the vast majority of strip searches as a waste of time and resources, not to mention an affront to personal dignity.
But Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, joined by the court’s conservative wing, wrote in his majority opinion that courts are in no position to question the judgments of corrections officials who must consider the possibility of smuggled weapons and drugs as well as concerns about public health and gang affiliations. An estimated 13 million people are admitted each year to the nation’s jails.
Before this ruling, federal appeals courts had been divided on the issue of strip-searching, however most of them ruled against strip-searches unless they were based on a reasonable suspicion that contraband was present. Personally, I think that strip-searches are a serious affront to human dignity and to individual privacy and should be used only when there was good reason or reasonable suspicion.
How do you feel about this? If you were strip searched at a jail subsequent to an arrest for a traffic violation, would you feel violated?
About the Attorney
Elizabeth Bagert Carpenter is a New Orleans Criminal defense lawyer. If you or a loved one has been arrested, contact her office for a consultation.