Siding with security needs over privacy rights, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that jailers may subject people arrested for minor offenses to invasive strip searches.
By a 5-4 vote, the court rejected a challenge from a New Jersey man who argued it’s unconstitutional to force everyone to strip down for inspection. Albert Florence was arrested by a state trooper because of an error in the state’s records that mistakenly said he was wanted on an outstanding warrant for an unpaid fine. Even if the warrant had been valid, failure to pay a fine is not a crime in New Jersey.
Florence was held for a week in two different jails before the charges were dropped. But at each jail, he was required to shower with delousing soap and undergo a strip search.
Florence’s lawyers argued such seaches are unconstitutional unless police have reason to believe the subject is carrying a weapon or drugs.
But the court’s majority said it’s difficult for jail officials to know who’s dangerous and who isn’t among the 13 million prisoners they process each year because criminal records are often not available at the time of intake. The majority opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy.
The court also noted that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was initially arrested for not having a license plate on his car and that one of the 9/11 terrorists was stopped and ticketed for speeding just two days before hijacking Flight 93. “People detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals,” the court said.