An arrest for a minor offense is usually handled quickly. Most of the 700,000 arrests on nonviolent, non-drug-related criminal charges every year go right to a judge, and the suspects are released immediately. If a judge is not available, though, the suspects are held in jail — and in many jurisdictions they are strip searched. The same thing happens if there’s an administrative or bureaucratic mess-up.
It was a bureaucratic error that ultimately led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision we have been discussing. The plaintiff was arrested for not paying a fine. He actually had paid the fine, seven years earlier, but a computer error meant that the bench warrant remained in effect. The plaintiff had a letter with him to that effect, but the officer ignored it.
The plaintiff ended up in jail, where he was strip searched before being put in with the general population. He was transferred a few days later, and he was strip searched again. After seven days in jail for a violation, not a crime, he was released.
His complaint alleged that the corrections department had violated his Fourth Amendment rights by conducting an unreasonable search. The majority found for the jails. The dissenting opinion, however, said that jailers should have a reasonable suspicion that the detainee is hiding something before conducting a strip search. And, while North Carolina’s attorney general joined others in supporting the jails, several states as well as associations of corrections officers agreed with the dissent.
The question of the search, then, is settled, but the plaintiff may yet pursue other avenues of redress. Going back to the events that triggered all of this, he may question the propriety of the arrest. The issue was not included in this case.
The plaintiff is African-American.
National Public Radio, “Supreme Court Upholds Invasive Strip Searches,” Associated Press, April 2, 2012
Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington, — S.Ct. —-, 2012 WL 1069092 (U.S.), April 2012, via Westlaw