We’ve been discussing a criminal case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court last week. The incident that gave rise to the case didn’t happen in North Carolina, but, as with most Supreme Court cases, the decision will certainly affect how the state’s jails operate.
The case was brought by a man who had been arrested for a non-violent crime — an allegedly unpaid traffic fine. During his six days in jail, he was subjected to two strip searches.
The petitioner has asked the Court to decide if the strip searches violated his Fourth Amendment rights, because the officers had no reason to suspect he was carrying contraband.
The jails argued it didn’t matter. First, jail inmates have no expectation of privacy. Second, the search is necessary for the safety of everyone. Smuggling has become a terrible problem, and strip searches have proven an effective way to keep dangerous contraband, like weapons and drugs, out of the jails.
The attorneys general of 12 states (including North Carolina) and other proponents of the jails’ policy argue that the searches are conducted for all inmates who join the general population and, so, avoid equal protection issues. Requiring jail personnel to establish reasonable cause for each and every search would “open the door” to profiling and abuses of discretion.
Without the bright line rule, then, states’ efforts to protect personnel and inmates from concealed health risks would be seriously undermined.
The Supreme Court has addressed the issue before. In 1979, the Court upheld a decision allowing body cavity searches of prisoners who had had contact with outside visitors, regardless of the charges against the prisoner.
We’ll discuss that case in our next post.
Source: National Public Radio, “High Court Looks at Routine Strip Searches in Jail,” Oct. 12, 2011