U.S. Supreme Court Permits Strip Searches of Any Inmate No Matter the Crime

U.S. Supreme Court Permits Strip Searches of Any Inmate No Matter the Crime

  • Florence v. County of Burlington
Imagine, if you will, that you were arrested for a "minor" crime such as failing to pay child support. Imagine you were taken to jail, and before you were placed in the general population, you were strip searched. Not only have you never touched drugs in your life, but you aren't a violent person. So, what are they searching for? Sounds like an unreasonable search under the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, right? Wrong. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, corrections officers are now permitted to perform a strip search on any inmate, at any time, regardless of the type of criminal charges that inmate is facing.

In a sharply divided decision, the Court decided the case of Florence v. County of Burlington centering around the arrest and subsequent strip search of Mr. Albert Florence. Mr. Florence was riding in the car with his wife when she was pulled over for speeding. The officer realized that there was a warrant out for Mr. Florence's arrest based on an unpaid fine. Mr. Florence spent a week in jail and was strip searched at least twice. Mr. Florence argued that since his alleged crime involved neither drugs nor violence, the corrections officers did not have reasonable suspicion to search and, thus, the search was unreasonable under the 4th Amendment. The Court disagreed. Focusing on safety, Justice Kennedy (author of the opinion), stated that "people detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals." He used two examples of this: Timothy McVeigh, the man who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, who was arrested for driving without a license; also, one of the September 11th high jackers was pulled over for speeding two days before he allegedly high jacked flight 93. He also cited to prior case law and reasoned that the corrections officers' interest in maintaing safety in jails outweighs the potential for unreasonable and unnecessary searches of certain inmates. Further, he stated that by establishing strict regulations regarding strip searches, more inmates would be deterred from trying to smuggle contraband into the jail in the first place.

The 5-4 opinion was issued with the majority of the Court leaning on the conservative side. The dissenters argued in favor of the standard that requires corrections officers to have reasonable suspicion of contraband in order to execute a strip search. To execute a strip search on a person accused of committing a minor crime that deals neither with drugs nor violence, seems, to some, to be equivalent to an unreasonable search of a person without a warrant. The question now seems to be: Why warrantless searches or searches without probable cause are violations of the 4th Amendment and a strip search of a person who is highly unlikely to ever attempt to smuggle contraband into a jail is not a violation of the 4th Amendment? The answer may never be revealed.


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