Poor Albert Florence. He was arrested after fleeing from police officers in Essex County, New Jersey, in 1998, pleaded guilty to hindering prosecution and obstructing justice, and was fined $1,574—which he was supposed to pay on a monthly basis. But by 2003 he had only paid $250, so after he failed to appear at an enforcement hearing, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest. He paid the outstanding balance less than a week later, but for some reason no one remembered to delete the bench warrant from New Jersey's statewide computer database.
Two years later, in Burlington County, New Jersey, Florence and his wife were stopped in their BMW SUV by a state trooper. She was driving. Based on the outstanding warrant in the computer system, the officer arrested Florence and took him to the Burlington County Detention Center—this, despite the fact that Florence had with him in the car a copy of a court record showing that had paid that fine. Florence was handcuffed, and taken to a state police barracks.
He was held there for six days and then was transferred to the Essex County Correctional Facility, his wife's efforts to prove that the fine had been paid being met with a shrug. Over the course of six days, he was strip-searched twice, once in each county’s jail. This was standard procedure for folks being admitted into the general prison population, not based on anything Florence himself had done. In front of complete strangers, he was told to completely disrobe, lift his own genitals, and allow the correctional officers to confirm he wasn't hiding contraband.
After the second strip-search, he was taken before a judge the next day; the judge said he was “appalled,” and ordered Florence’s immediate release. Florence has argued that the officers needed to at least have some "reasonable suspicion" before subjecting persons with such minor offenses as his to such invasive treatment.
In a 5-4 opinion issued today authored by Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court of the United States holds that Florence's treatment was 100 percent constitutional. Why? Follow me below the fold to get deep inside this one:
First off, writes Justice Kennedy (on behalf of the five you'd expect), because running a jail is hard, and unlike, say, operating a fair system for ensuring corruption-free elections they don't want to second-guess people here:
The difficulties of operating a detention center must not be underestimated by the courts. Jails (in the stricter sense of the term, excluding prison facilities) admit more than 13 million inmates a year. The largest facilities process hundreds of people every day; smaller jails may be crowded on weekend nights, after a large police operation, or because of detainees arriving from other jurisdictions. Maintaining safety and order at these institutions requires the expertise of correctional officials, who must have substantial discretion to devise reasonable solutions to the problems they face. The Court has confirmed the importance of deference to correctional officials and explained that a regulation impinging on an inmate’s constitutional rights must be upheld “if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. [...]
Correctional officials have a significant interest in conducting a thorough search as a standard part of the intake process. The admission of inmates creates numerous risks for facility staff, for the existing detainee population, and for a new detainee himself or herself. The danger of introducing lice or contagious infections, for example, is well documented.... Jails and prisons also face grave threats posed by the increasing number of gang members who go through the intake process....These considerations provide a reasonable basis to justify a visual inspection for certain tattoos and other signs of gang affiliation as part of the intake process. The identification and isolation of gang members before they are admitted protects everyone in the facility.
And that's even the case for minor offenses, though what the listing below has to do with this case ...
People detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals. Cf. Clements v. Logan, 454 U. S. 1304, 1305 (1981) (Rehnquist, J., in chambers) (deputy at a detention center shot by misdemeanant who had not been strip searched). Hours after the Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh was stopped by a state trooper who noticed he was driving without a license plate. Police stopped serial killer Joel Rifkin for the same reason. One of the terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks was stopped and ticketed for speeding just two days before hijacking Flight 93. Reasonable correctional officials could conclude these uncertainties mean they must conduct the same thorough search of everyone who will be admitted to their facilities.
Experience shows that people arrested for minor of- fenses have tried to smuggle prohibited items into jail, sometimes by using their rectal cavities or genitals for the concealment. They may have some of the same incentives as a serious criminal to hide contraband. A detainee might risk carrying cash, cigarettes, or a penknife to survive in jail. Others may make a quick decision to hide unlawful substances to avoid getting in more trouble at the time of their arrest. This record has concrete examples. Officers at the Atlantic County Correctional Facility, for example, discovered that a man arrested for driving under the influence had “2 dime bags of weed, 1 pack of rolling papers, 20 matches, and 5 sleeping pills” taped under his scrotum. Brief for Atlantic County et al. as Amici Curiae 36 (internal quotation marks omitted). A person booked on a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct in Washington State managed to hide a lighter, tobacco, tattoo needles, and other prohibited items in his rectal cavity.
And, so, Mr. Florence, they're doing this for your own good!
The officials in charge of the jails in this case urge the Court to reject any complicated constitutional scheme requiring them to conduct less thorough inspections of some detainees based on their behavior, suspected offense, criminal history, and other factors. They offer significant reasons why the Constitution must not prevent them from conducting the same search on any suspected offender who will be admitted to the general population in their facilities. The restrictions suggested by petitioner would limit the intrusion on the privacy of some detainees but at the risk of increased danger to everyone in the facility, including the less serious offenders themselves.
...Even assuming all the facts in favor of petitioner, the search procedures at the Burlington County Detention Center and the Essex County Correctional Facility struck a reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the needs of the institutions. The Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments do not require adoption of the framework of rules petitioner proposes.
Four of the conservative justices—except Justice Thomas (of course)—want to make explicit the limits they see in today's opinion:
This case does not require the Court to rule on the types of searches that would be reasonable in instances where, for example, a detainee will be held without assignment to the general jail population and without substantial contact with other detainees [...] Petitioner’s amici raise concerns about instances of officers engaging in intentional humiliation and other abusive practices. See Brief for Sister Bernie Galvin et al. as Amici Curiae; see also Hudson, 468 U. S., at 528 (“[I]ntentional harassment of even the most hardened criminals cannot be tolerated by a civilized society”). There also may be legitimate concerns about the invasiveness of searches that involve the touching of detainees.
And in concurrences, the chief justice and Justice Alito want to stress this limit. Alito:
As part of the inspection, the arrestees may be required to manipulate their bodies. Undergoing such an inspection is undoubtedly humiliating and deeply offensive to many, but there are reasonable grounds for strip searching arrestees before they are admitted to the general population of a jail. [...]
It is important to note, however, that the Court does not hold that it is always reasonable to conduct a full strip search of an arrestee whose detention has not been reviewed by a judicial officer and who could be held in available facilities apart from the general population. Most of those arrested for minor offenses are not dangerous, and most are released from custody prior to or at the time of their initial appearance before a magistrate. In some cases, the charges are dropped. In others, arrestees are released either on their own recognizance or on minimal bail. In the end, few are sentenced to incarceration. For these persons, admission to the general jail population, with the concomitant humiliation of a strip search, may not be reasonable, particularly if an alternative procedure is feasible. [...]
The Court does not address whether it is always reasonable, without regard to the offense or the reason for detention, to strip search an arrestee before the arrestee’s detention has been reviewed by a judicial officer. The lead opinion explicitly reserves judgment on that question. In light of that limitation, I join the opinion of the Court in full.
As with Justice Alito, however, it is important for me that the Court does not foreclose the possibility of an exception to the rule it announces. Justice Kennedy explains that the circumstances before it do not afford an opportunity to consider that possibility. Those circumstances include the facts that Florence was detained not for a minor traffic offense but instead pursuant to a warrant for his arrest, and that there was apparently no alternative, if Florence were to be detained, to holding him in the general jail population. [...]
The Court makes a persuasive case for the general applicability of the rule it announces. The Court is nonetheless wise to leave open the possibility of exceptions, to ensure that we “not embarrass the future.”
Justice Breyer dissents on behalf of those who are embarrassed in the present:
The visually invasive kind of strip search at issue here is not unique. A similar practice is well described in Dodge v. County of Orange, 282 F. Supp. 2d 41 (SDNY 2003). In that New York case, the “strip search” (as described in a relevant prison manual) involved:
“ ‘a visual inspection of the inmate’s naked body. This should include the inmate opening his mouth and moving his tongue up and down and from side to side, removing any dentures, running his hands through his hair, allowing his ears to be visually examined, lifting his arms to expose his arm pits, lifting his feet to examine the sole, spreading and/or lifting his testicles to expose the area behind them and bending over and/or spreading the cheeks of his buttocks to expose his anus. For females, the procedures are similar except females must in addition, squat to expose the vagina.’”
In my view, such a search of an individual arrested for a minor offense that does not involve drugs or violence—say a traffic offense, a regulatory offense, an essentially civil matter, or any other such misdemeanor—is an “unreasonable searc[h]” forbidden by the Fourth Amendment, unless prison authorities have reasonable suspicion to believe that the individual possesses drugs or other contraband. [...]
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. We have recently said, in respect to a schoolchild (and a less intrusive search), that the “meaning of such a search, and the degradation its subject may reasonably feel, place a search that intrusive in a category of its own demanding its own specific suspicions.” The Courts of Appeals have more directly described the privacy interests at stake, writing, for example, that practices similar to those at issue here are “demeaning, dehumanizing, undignified, humiliating, terrifying, unpleasant, embarrassing, [and] repulsive, signifying degradation and submission.” Even when carried out in a respectful manner, and even absent any physical touching, such searches are inherently harmful, humiliating, and degrading. And the harm to privacy interests would seem particularly acute where the person searched may well have no expectation of being subject to such a search, say, because she had simply received a traffic ticket for failing to buckle a seatbelt, because he had not previously paid a civil fine, or because she had been arrested for a minor trespass.
And other procedures in place are good enough to address penological concerns:
I have found no convincing reason indicating that, in the absence of reasonable suspicion, involuntary strip searches of those arrested for minor offenses are necessary in order to further the penal interests mentioned. And there are strong reasons to believe they are not justified.
The lack of justification is fairly obvious with respect to the first two penological interests advanced. The searches already employed at Essex and Burlington include: (a) pat-frisking all inmates; (b) making inmates go through metal detectors (including the Body Orifice Screening System (BOSS) chair used at Essex County Correctional Facility that identifies metal hidden within the body); (c) making inmates shower and use particular delousing agents or bathing supplies; and (d) searching inmates’ clothing. In addition, petitioner concedes that detainees could be lawfully subject to being viewed in their undergarments by jail officers or during showering (for security purposes). No one here has offered any reason, example, or empirical evidence suggesting the inadequacy of such practices for detecting injuries, diseases, or tattoos. In particular, there is no connection between the genital lift and the “squat and cough” that Florence was allegedly subjected to and health or gang concerns.
The New York Federal District Court, to which I have referred, conducted a study of 23,000 persons admitted to the Orange County correctional facility between 1999 and 2003.These 23,000 persons underwent a strip search of the kind described. Of these 23,000 persons, the court wrote, “the County encountered three incidents of drugs recovered from an inmate’s anal cavity and two incidents of drugs falling from an inmate’s underwear during the course of a strip search.” The court added that in four of these five instances there may have been “reasonable suspicion” to search, leaving only one instance in 23,000 in which the strip search policy “arguably” detected additional contraband.
SCOTUSblog has all the briefs and background material
[...] After all, those arrested for minor offenses are often stopped and arrested unexpectedly. And they consequently will have had little opportunity to hide things in their body cavities.