What if you find yourself arrested for a “minor” crime such as failing to pay child support or some variety of traffic violation? You might imagine being taken to jail but would you expect to be subjected to a strip search? Not being a drug user or a violent repeat criminal surely such activity by the police would amount to an unreasonable search and seizure under the 4th Amendment of the Constitution. Not according to a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. The High Court recently announced that corrections officers are now permitted to perform a strip search on any inmate, at any time, regardless of the type of criminal charges that the inmate is facing.

In a divided decision, the Court decided the case of Florence v. County of Burlington, which involved the arrest and subsequent strip search of Albert Florence. Mr. Florence was riding in the car with his wife when she was pulled over for speeding. The officer realized that there was a warrant out for Mr. Florence’s arrest based on an unpaid fine. Mr. Florence spent a week in jail and was strip-searched on at least two separate occasions. Mr. Florence argued that since his alleged crime involved neither drugs nor violence, the corrections officers did not have reasonable suspicion necessary to search him and, thus, the search was unreasonable under the 4th Amendment.

The Court disagreed. Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion and focused on officer safety, stating, “people detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals.” As an example Justice Kennedy cited one of the September 11th hijackers who was pulled over for speeding two days before he allegedly hijacked United Flight 93. Kennedy also argued that the corrections officers’ interest in maintaining safety in jails outweighs the potential for unreasonable and unnecessary searches of certain inmates. Further, he stated that by establishing strict regulations regarding strip searches, more inmates would be deterred from trying to smuggle contraband into the jail in the first place.

The dissenters argued in favor of the standard that requires corrections officers to have reasonable suspicion of contraband in order to execute a strip search. To execute a strip search on a person accused of committing a minor crime that deals neither with drugs nor violence, seems, to some, to be equivalent to an unreasonable search of a person without a warrant. The question that has not been answered is why a warrantless search is a violation of the 4th Amendment while a strip search of a person who is highly unlikely to ever attempt to smuggle contraband into a jail is not?

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