U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Upholds Strip Search of Man Arrested for Unpaid Fines, Emphasizes Jailhouse Security

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The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the strip search of a New Jersey man arrested on a warrant for a minor offense.

The defendant, Albert Florence, was stopped for speeding in March 2005 and arrested on an outstanding warrant for unpaid traffic fines. The warrant was in error; Florence had paid the fines. His lawyer had argued searches at two detention centers violated the Fourth Amendment, since the arrest was for a minor crime and there was no reasonable suspicion for the search.

The court ruled for detention officials in a 5-4 opinion (PDF). The searches, which did not involve touching by jail officials, “struck a reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the needs of the institutions,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority.

“People detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals,” Kennedy wrote. “The difficulties of operating a detention center must not be underestimated by the courts.”

It would be difficult for detention officials to classify detainees based on their offenses because so little is known about them, Kennedy said. Arrestees may give a fake identity, and criminal records may be inaccurate or incomplete.

Kennedy said the court was not ruling on searches in which a detainee is held separate from the population, cases of intentional humiliation, or cases involving touching of detainees. Justice Clarence Thomas did not join that section of Kennedy’s opinion.

That section was apparently important to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr., however. They wrote separate concurrences emphasizing that different cases could have different outcomes.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer dissented in an opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. “A strip search that involves a stranger peering without consent at a naked individual, and in particular at the most private portions of that person’s body, is a serious invasion of privacy,” Breyer wrote. In his view, a strip search for a minor offense—such as a traffic or regulatory offenses or a misdemeanor—violates the Fourth Amendment, unless the offense involves drugs or violence, or there is a reasonable suspicion the person has drugs or contraband.

The ABA had filed an amicus brief supporting limits on strip searches. The case is Florence v. Board of Freeholders.

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