Albert Florence was in the passenger seat of his BMW when a state trooper pulled his wife over for speeding. A records search revealed, incorrectly as it turned out, that he had an outstanding warrant based on an unpaid fine. Mr. Florence was handcuffed and taken into custody. Florence was held for a week at two separate New Jersey county jails, and strip-searched at each one.
(Below, in a podcast produced by the American Constitution Society and the National Constitution Center, Florence tells the story of his arrest in front of his pregnant wife and four-year-old son, and his subsequent treatment at the two detention facilities.)
An outrageous affront to human dignity, right? An obvious violation of personal privacy? With jails admitting more than 13 million inmates a year, are we really going to sanction strip searches for even the most minor offenses?
Earlier this week, in a — say it with me — “5-4 decision,” the United States Supreme Court held that corrections officials may strip search people who are arrested for all offenses, including those not involving drugs or violence, and without any suspicion that they may be hiding contraband.
The Story Behind Florence v. Burlington from National Constitution Center on Vimeo.
Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, was loathe to “second-guess the judgments of correctional officials,” while Justice Breyer wrote in dissent that “there was very little empirical support for the idea that strip-searches detect contraband that would not have been found had jail officials used less intrusive means, particularly if strip-searches were allowed when officials had a reasonable suspicion that they would find something.”
Breyer also took note of a number of other instances documented in amicus briefs submitted in the case in which “individuals arrested for minor offenses have been subjected to the humiliations of a visual strip search”:
They include women who were strip-searched during periods of lactation or menstruation. They include victims of sexual violence. They include individuals detained for such infractions as driving with a noisy muffler, driving with an inoperable headlight, failing to use a turn signal, or riding a bicycle without an audible bell.
The ACLU warned that the decision “jeopardizes the privacy rights of millions of people who are arrested each year and brought to jail, often for minor offenses.” ACLU legal director, Steven R. Shapiro, stated:
Being forced to strip naked is a humiliating experience that no one should have to endure absent reasonable suspicion. Jail security is important, but it does not require routinely strip searching everyone who is arrested for any reason, including traffic violations, and who may be in jail for only a few hours.
Amy Davidson writes about the cluelessness of Justice Kennedy and his Gang of Five (“What does the Supreme Court know about naked bodies? What is more important, according to a five-four decision Monday, is what the Justices think a law-enforcement officer might learn from strip-searching anyone who has been taken into their custody for any reason at all.”)
Davidson makes another great point: “If jails are such a dangerous morass, the sort of place one can’t enter without a squatting ritual, why are we sending so many millions there, and for what?”
Fair and Unbalanced