WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that jailers may subject people arrested for minor offenses to invasive strip searches, siding with security needs over privacy rights.
By a 5-4 vote, the court ruled against a New Jersey man who complained that strip searches in two county jails violated his civil rights.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his majority opinion for the court's conservative justices that when people are going to be put into the general jail population, "courts must defer to the judgment of correctional officials unless the record contains substantial evidence showing their policies are an unnecessary or unjustified response to problems of jail security."
In a dissenting opinion joined by the court's liberals, Justice Stephen Breyer said strip searches improperly "subject those arrested for minor offenses to serious invasions of their personal privacy." Breyer said jailers ought to have a reasonable suspicion someone may be hiding something before conducting a strip search.
Albert Florence (pictured) was forced to undress and submit to strip searches following his arrest on a warrant for an unpaid fine, though the fine actually had been paid. Even if the warrant had been valid, failure to pay a fine is not a crime in New Jersey.
But Kennedy focused on the fact that Florence was held with other inmates in the general population. In concurring opinions, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito said the decision left open the possibility of an exception to the rule and might not apply to someone held apart from other inmates.
The first strip search of Florence took place in the Burlington County Jail in southern New Jersey. Six days later, Florence had not received a hearing and remained in custody. Transferred to another county jail in Newark, he was strip-searched again.
The next day, a judge dismissed all charges. Florence's lawsuit soon followed.
He may still pursue other claims, including that he never should have been arrested.
Florence's problems arose in March 2005, as he was heading to dinner at his mother-in-law's house with his pregnant wife and 4-year-old child. His wife, April, was driving when a state trooper stopped the family SUV on a New Jersey highway.
Florence identified himself as the vehicle's owner and the trooper, checking records, found an outstanding warrant for an unpaid fine. Florence, who is African-American, had been stopped several times before, and he carried a letter to the effect that the fine, for fleeing a traffic stop several years earlier, had been paid.
His protest was in vain, however, and the trooper handcuffed him and hauled him off to jail. At the time, the State Police were operating under a court order, spawned by allegations of past racial discrimination, that provided federal monitors to assess state police stops of minority drivers. But the propriety of the stop is not at issue, and Florence is not alleging racial discrimination.