The Naked Truth Behind the Strip Search Decision

default article imageTake a moment to imagine the following: one second you are driving down the road with your wife and son, carefree and content. In the next instant you are being pulled over, arrested for supposedly not paying a fine and strip searched at a correctional facility not just once, but twice. To some, the situation described might seem over exaggerated and farfetched to say the least, but for Albert Florence the situation was all to real.

According to an article released on April 2 in the New York Timeson in 2005 Florence’s wife, who had been operating the vehicle, was pulled over for speeding. As the traffic officer ran through the usual procedure of processing a speeding violation, he had discovered that Florence had failed to pay a fine, which lead to his arrest. After Florence was taken into custody, he was admitted to Essex County Correctional Facility, where he was first strip searched, and then transferred to a Burlington County holding facility where he was searched for a second time.

After Florence’s release, it turns out that the fine that had led to his arrest in the first place was, in fact, paid. However, the fact that there was a confusion about the fine wasn’t the problem in Florence’s eyes, the problem was that he was subject to strip searches for something so minimal

Florence has since sued, claiming that strip searches of those arrested for minor infractions violate the Fourth Amendment, which protects against any kind of unreasonable search and seizure, along with requiring probable cause and a judicially sanctioned warrant; the case has made its way all the way up to the Supreme Court in a case labeled Florence v. The Board of Chosen Freeholders.

On Monday April 2, 2012, the United States Supreme Court, which had been in this debacle for well over five years, was finally able to come to a closing decision, ruling in a five to four vote that officials may strip search arrested individuals, no matter how minor the offense or even if there is no reason to suspect a contraband, prior to their admittance into a jail or correctional holding facility.

As explained by Professor Michele Grillo, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the University, “The United States Supreme Court views the legality of strip searches as an equity issue. If one offender must succumb to strip searches, then all offenders must be searched in the same manner. Otherwise, there is the possibility of “selective” or “profiled” searches, where one offender may be targeted over another for a search. The other issue considered by the United States Supreme Court was safety. The majority opinion held that strip searches serve two purposes: the safety of the entering offender and the safety of the current inmates. Strip searches prevent drugs and weapons from entering the facility. Therefore, the type of infraction is not sufficient to preclude an offender from a strip search.”

But if the whole argument was that strip searches without reason of suspicion go against the Fourth Amendment, then how could the Supreme Court have end up coming to such a decision? Professor Gregory Bordelon, lecturer of political science and pre-law adviser, has a theory as to why the Supreme Court made the decision that it did. “There was a balancing of interests in the case and certainly Florence’s argument was that the nature of the offense does not justify the intrusion of a strip search. However, the Court saw it differently and went with the safety of police officers, other inmates, and institutional concerns espoused by the police department in this particular case. Note though that the case was five to four, so the dissent may make a very strong argument in a future case under a different set of circumstances,” says Bordelon.

Bordelon goes on to mention what the addition to the strip search can possibly accomplish. “It does increase the power of the state to the detriment of individuals, but note again that it is not a case that dealt with an investigatory stop or search concerning probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Logistically, if the ideological makeup of the Court changes in the coming years, this case may offer a precendential starting point to further clarify when rights attach vis-a-vis pre-trial detention. Should there be a different standard after booking? What if the arrestee is placed alone versus in the general population? Will these things matter or will the Court simply allow police departments to have the protections of the general rule that Florence set forth? It is an example of courts not wanting to encroach upon the police power, but at five to four, who knows if it can last as precedent?” Bordelon contends.

No matter the reasoning of the Supreme Court, the close cut decision about permitting strip searches without probable cause, or for minor infractions, still has several individuals stating that it is still is an invasion of privacy, including various students here at the University.

Freshmen Robert Reiner, Tyler Vandegrift and Ryan Mohr all seem to agree that strip searches are an unnecessary invasion of privacy. “We shouldn’t have to give up any more of our freedoms for security, because in the end we just might wind up losing both in the process,” says Mohr.

On the other hand, freshman Mark Consentino believes that everyone should do some research on the case before they say whether they think that the decision was correct. “The role of the U.S. Supreme Court is to determine constitutionality. State law here in New Jersey, it should be noted, is actually more restrictive than federal in regards to strip-searches. No one is arrested, brought to the police station, made to undergo a strip search. In this case Florence was arrested on a warrant—meaning a judge ordered the trooper to arrest him and bring him to answer the charges of failing to appear in court. If someone cannot post bail, they get run out to county jail. That is where Florence was searched; in jail, not the police station, where New Jersey law restricts these kinds of searches. It is not uncommon for strip-searches (note: these are not cavity searches) to be performed in addition to showers, etc. Whether the arrest is on view, with probable cause, or on a warrant, and for whatever crime or offense, entering a general population of inmates and corrections officers requires the sterile environment be maintained from weapons or contraband. That said, the larger issue of whether people can be stripsearched immediately upon arrest seems to be what people are sounding off on here, and the precedent the case sets will be something to watch,” states Consentino.

It appears that it is going to have to be up to the individual though as to whether these searches are constitutional or not. “I personally believe that when a person commits a crime, some rights should be lost as part of the punishment. In today’s day and age, we are seeing more crime committed behind bars then ever before. This includes the smuggling of drugs and weapons by newly admitted offenders as well as guards and visitors. Taking this into account, I believe that the United States Supreme Court made the right decision in allowing strip searches, regardless of the severity of the charge. As previously mentioned, it is for the safety of all involved, and it prevents haphazard searches. Hopefully, the ruling will act as a further deterrent to crime, especially misdemeanors in New Jersey,” says Grillo.

Meanwhile Vandegrift believes that “It’s completely unreasonable because when you are under arrest, you are not always detained with proof of any offense and you are there just for investigative purposes. Although if it is in jail then it is completely constitutional to search the individual because they are now an indigent prisoner. That should be put in black and white though because they have lost their right to freedom and since they are under supervision within the jail then they have also lost their rights to search and seizure.”

Everyone values privacy one way or another. It is the sense of solitude and secrecy that allows everyday individuals to go about their lives feeling whole and in control. Not only that, but it also allows a person to maintain their autonomy and distinct aspects of their individuality, which as components to a stable, yet basic, personality make-up.