No offense is too small for police officers to conduct a strip search, the Supreme Court ruled today. “Every detainee who will be admitted to the general population may be required to undergo a close visual inspection while undressed,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. The case sets a new precedent on the 4th Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches.
The vote was 5-4, split along the usual partisan divide of the court. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen G. Breyer stated that strip searches should only be conducted when there is a reasonable justification for one, calling the ruling “a serious affront to human dignity and to individual privacy.”
The specific case the Supreme Court examined stemmed from a 2005 arrest of New Jersey resident Albert W. Florence. Florence was a passenger in a car pulled over for speeding when an officer found an outstanding warrant for him. It was later discovered to be an erroneous warrant because the fine had in fact been paid. Moreover, a failure to pay a fine is not considered criminal in the state anyway.
During his week in jail, Florence was subject to strip searches on two occasions. “It was humiliating,” Florence said. “It made me feel less than a man.”
In support of the decision, Justice Kennedy remarked that the Supreme Court should not infringe on police officers’ ability to do the job they see fit. He added, “People detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals.”
On the other hand, Justice Breyer cited a study that demonstrated that less invasive forms of searches were almost entirely successful at finding contraband on prisoners. Breyer also referenced previous cases where individuals were degraded with a strip search after being arrested for such petty crimes as not using a turn signal in a car and riding a bike without a bell.
Though this matter has bounced around federal appeals courts for a while, most of the previous judges believed such searches were only appropriate following a reasonable suspicion. Prior to today’s decision, federal authorities had stricter policies on when they could perform strip searches. On a state level, 10 states currently ban unwarranted strip searches.
As it now stands, however, police officers will have the authority to strip search any individuals they arrest, with or without due cause.
AP Photo of Albert W. Florence, right, and his attorney Susan Chana Lask by Mel Evans, File