North Carolina Sides with Jails in Us Supreme Court Strip Search Case P4 - Sparrow Law Firm

We’re finishing up our discussion of a criminal case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case involves strip searches of non-violent detainees in county jails. The jails in question are not in North Carolina, but the state’s criminal defense attorneys are watching the case closely, because the ruling will certainly reach them.

Just as the Court’s decision in a 1979 case did. That case, like the current one, deals with strip searches and Fourth Amendment rights. Commentators believe the Supreme Court will rely on the decision as it deliberates.

The 1979 case, Bell v. Wolfish, is not directly analogous, though. The strip searches in Bell were conducted after detainees had contact with visitors, when suspicion could be reasonable. The Court ruled as follows:

Balancing the significant and legitimate security interests of the institution against the inmates’ privacy interests, such searches can be conducted on less than probable cause and are not unreasonable.

The decision added that the searches and other jail policies did not amount to “punishment” that violated the petitioners’ Fifth Amendment due process rights. The Court chose to characterize cavity searches and other policies as “reasonable responses” to security concerns, adding that “in any event, [these practices] were of only limited duration so far as the pretrial detainees were concerned.”

In his dissent in Bell, Justice Thurgood Marshall scolded the majority for failing to consider “the most relevant factor, the impact that restrictions may have on inmates.” Doing so was inexcusable in his eyes, because “all of these detainees are presumptively innocent and many are confined solely because they cannot afford bail.”

The discussion and the opinion are likely to be as interesting and far-reaching in this new case. We won’t know for sure until next spring.


National Public Radio, “High Court Looks at Routine Strip Searches in Jail,” Oct. 12, 2011

Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979), via Westlaw