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Jailhouse Strip-Searches For Minor Offenses – Let the Abuses Commence!

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures without a warrant supported by probable cause.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court recently held in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington that routine comprehensive strip-searches before any arrestee is admitted into the general prison population were constitutional regardless of the arrestee‘s particular offense or criminal history.

The underlying facts in Florence involved a Defendant arrested for a minor, non-violent offense. Upon arrest and before being introduced into the jail‘s general population, the Defendant was subjected to the standard inmate intake procedures employed by Burlington County jails.

The procedures employed by the jail included requiring arrestees to shower with a delousing agent and submitting to visual bodily inspection for injuries, scars, marks, gang tattoos, and contraband. Inspection included instructing arrestees to open their mouth, lift their tongue, hold out their arms, lift their genitals, etc. The procedures apply to all arrestees entering the general prison population regardless of offense, behavior, criminal history, or demeanor.

The Defendant argued that this kind of search was a violation of an individual‘s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment privacy rights if the corrections officers did not have reason to suspect the particular inmate of concealing contraband, drugs, or weapons.

The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that forcing corrections officers to make a judgment call of the kind placed the entire prison population at risk. On the other hand, the Court held that a uniform policy struck the correct balance between the privacy rights of inmates and the security interests of the prison.

The Court explained that maintaining safety and order in prisons required a particular expertise and experience that a court of law did not possess. In situations where a regulation impinges on the constitutional rights of inmates, courts should defer to the judgment of prison officials if the regulation “is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” In other words, unless there is evidence that the prison officials have exaggerated their response to the situation, regulations of this kind should be upheld.

To come to this determination, the Court weighed the legitimate interest of prison officials in ensuring safety and order in their institution against the privacy interests of individuals arrested for minor, non-violent offenses.

In the opinion of the Court, jails and prisons have a significant interest in performing a comprehensive strip search of every inmate that comes into contact with the general prison population to prevent the spread of disease, identify the need for immediate medical attention, identify gang members, and detect and deter contraband including drugs and weapons. Considering the information available to officers about the arrestee and the time constraints involved at intake, conducting a less invasive search on certain types of detainees would be unworkable.

The Court cited evidence that the seriousness of an offense is not a good predictor of whether a person is likely to possess contraband or be a dangerous criminal. Additionally, the court determined that it would cause serious difficulties in implementation for prison officials to classify arrestees by their current and prior offenses before an intake search. In effect, it would place prison officers in the position of having to make a legal constitutional determination during the brief intake process with the little information available to them at the time. This would in turn create a larger risk for the entire jail population because officers would be less inclined to conduct thorough searches in debatable cases in order to avoid liability.

Balancing this significant interest of prisons in maintaining order and safety with the privacy interests of inmates, the Court held that uniform comprehensive strip-searches before any arrestee is admitted into the general prison population is not contrary to an individual‘s Fourth Amendment privacy rights. Considering the risks and logistical problems involved, the Court found this to be true regardless of the severity and nature of the offense or the arrestee‘s demeanor.

It remains to be seen how this will play out in the jails across the country. It takes little imagination to predict the many abuses that will follow this opinion. Many may view this as a strike against crime. However, one might pause to consider that strip searches of harden gangsters really has no bearing or relationship at all to a strip search of a young woman or man suspected of shoplifting or even a young mother of 3 picked up on warrants for traffic violations.

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