Monday, April 2, 2012

US Supreme Court Approves Strip-Searches Even For Suspects Arrested for Minor Offenses

On April 2, 2012, the United States Supreme Court held that the Constitution permits correctional facilities to conduct blanket strip searches on all arrestees entering general population, even those arrested only for minor offenses.   Florence v. Bd. of Chosen Freeholders of Cty. of Burlington et al. (2012) No. 10-945, slip. op., settles a division among lower courts about whether public safety professionals needed "reasonable suspicion" before strip-searching nonindictable offenders.

The case arose after Albert Florence was arrested in 2003 on a bench warrant related to his failure to pay a fine or appear at an enforcement hearing.  Arresting officers took him to a county correctional facility.  At the correctional facility he was required to shower with a delousing agent while officers checked him for scars, marks, gang tattoos and contraband.  Officers also visually inspected his body openings.  After six days he was transferred to a second facility with a similar procedures.  The procedure was the same for all arrestees and no one touched Florence during the process.  Florence later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming the search was unconstitutional because he was arrested for a minor crime.

The Court rejected Florence's argument.  The Court's decision emphasized that "Correctional officials have a legitimate interest, indeed a responsibility, to ensure that jails are not made less secure by reason of what detainees may carry on their bodies."  The Court found ample evidence that suspects arrested for even minor crimes carry contraband into facilities, citing evidence from California where "San Francisco Officers have discovered contraband hidden in body cavities of people arrested for trespassing, public nuisance, and shoplifting."

Accordingly, the Court concluded the reasons a person is arrested has little bearing on whether intake procedures are constitutional.  Instead, the Court found the policy was reasonable and that courts should defer to public safety professionals to make the decision about when and how to search inmates.