U.S. Supreme Court Approves Limited Jail Strip Searches

The mainstream media has once again sensationalized the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington et al. (No.10-943, Decided on April 2, 2912). The news media seemed hostile to the result by using headlines like “Court OKs Strip Search for Minor Traffic Tickets.” The media seemed to focus only on the apparent humiliation of the individual arrested by law enforcement who had to undergo a strip search before being locked up in jail. Seldom, if ever, did the media focus on the compelling reasons why law enforcement agencies utilize a strip search before admitting a person into jail facilities. Despite the usual 5-4 split decision in this type of case involving civil rights, the Court did not give a wholesale approval for strip searches of all persons who are being admitted into jail. Police administrators need to be aware of the limiting conditions discussed in the Opinion by the Justices.

Without a doubt, this decision is pro law enforcement. It clears up the conflicting decisions from amongst various federal appellate courts as to whether law enforcement departments could strip search someone charged with any offense which was unrelated to an illegal drug or weapons charge. Some appellate courts required police officers to possess a reasonable suspicion of drug use or hiding contraband before using a strip search of the suspect.

The Court upheld the lower federal appellate court ruling that the police did not violate Florence’s civil rights by requiring him to submit to a strip search even though he was arrested for a minor traffic offense. Unfortunately for him, there was an outstanding bench warrant for an unpaid traffic ticket which he had, in fact, already paid prior to his arrest. The rationale of the Opinion is that the need for correctional facility officers to maintain security from prisoners who sneak in drugs, weapons and contraband outweigh the civil rights of persons who argue that they should be exempt from strip searches due to the minor offenses involved in their arrest. The key to this decision seemed to revolve around the fact that Florence was placed in the general population in the jail rather than being placed in isolation. Had he been placed in a jail cell apart from the general population in the jail, the Court’s decision may have gone the other way.

The Court was careful to state that its decision was directed to only the facts of this case and should not be broadly construed to fit all situations. In particular, several other Justices who voted to uphold the lower appellate court raised concerns about what could be construed as a wholesale approval of strip searches. They cautioned against the general applicability announced in this decision. They would be more comfortable if the court had identified some exceptions to the rule set forth in the Opinion. One Justice felt an exemption from strip search would be appropriate if persons charged with minor offenses were separated from the jail general population.

It is recommended that police departments review their procedures for when strip searches are appropriate. If a person is going to be placed in jail, a strip search may not be appropriate where the person is placed in a solitary cell and not in the holding area where others may be located. Likewise, a strip search of a person in the field who is suspected of possessing drugs, weapons or contraband  and not being processed in to a jail would not necessarily fall under the guidance provided in this Court decision. Or, it might be inadvisable to perform strip search of a person who was waiting several hours to be bonded out on the charges.

U. S. Supreme Court Approves Jail Strip Searches: The Naked Truth! was written by Stephen E. Reel, OMAG General Counsel. You may contact the author at sreel@omag.org. The information in this bulletin in intended solely for general informational purposes and should not be construed as or used as a substitute for legal advice or legal opinions with respect to specific situations, since such advice requires an evaluation of precise factual circumstances by an attorney. OMAG does not represent or endorse any group, site or product that may be mentioned in this article.

January 2013

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