Having previously expanded the police power to jail suspects on minor charges, the Supreme Court on Monday further eroded Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights when going behind bars.
In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that jails can strip search all detainees, even those charged with minor crimes. Such invasive, demeaning searches often are associated with hardcore inmates whom jailers might have good reason to suspect could be hiding something — drugs, weapons or other contraband — that could pose a danger to themselves, guards or other inmates.
But the court decided that jailers don’t need probable cause to invade every inch of a person’s private space. The majority deferred to correctional officials to set their policies. So they are free to strip search every detainee who is admitted to a jail’s general population, regardless of the seriousness of the alleged crime. A serial speeder can be treated the same as a violent felon.
Such was the case in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington. A man who was arrested during a traffic stop because a police database showed — erroneously, it turned out — that he had failed to pay a civil fine. He spent a week in two different jails, and twice was strip searched.
The case raises Fourth Amendment issues, which protects Americans from “unreasonable” searches and seizures that require probable cause. The court’s ruling leaves it up to jailers to determine what is reasonable. If they deal with a large number of inmates who can’t be segregated, and want to ensure that everyone in the general population is not hiding anything, they can conduct thorough searches of everyone.
This is a logical extension of an earlier Supreme Court ruling on arrests. In the 2001 case of Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, the court upheld the police’s power to make warrantless arrests for minor offenses. In Atwater, that involved a mother who was arrested because her children were not restrained by seat belts in the family vehicle. The mother was not jailed; she was processed and released in an hour.
If, according to the court, the Fourth Amendment allows people to be incarcerated for finable offenses, then it’s not unreasonable to expect them to be searched just as any other inmate would. Indeed, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, said, “Atwater addressed the perhaps more fundamental question of who may be deprived of liberty and taken to jail in the first place.”
Thus, the problem isn’t so much that jails may strip search unthreatening inmates. It’s that people can be jailed for violating such minor laws. That barn door should’ve been closed 21 years ago.
Nevertheless, this represents yet another fiber being snipped from the Constitution. Courts have upheld the police’s power to conduct a “roadside safety checks” of vehicles. That gives law enforcement an excuse to conduct a fishing expedition. A minor violation could result in an arrest and a strip search in jail (Justice Stephen Breyer in his dissent in Florence notes instances where individuals were arrested for such infractions as having a noisy muffler or outstanding parking tickets.)
So you start the day driving down the highway, minding your own business, and end it being intimately examined by a corrections officer.
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