We are continuing our discussion of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that could change the way jails operate across the country. Critics are astounded that the court upheld the 3rd U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that allowed jails to strip search incoming detainees regardless of their crimes. Neither the case nor the appellate court was in North Carolina, but last year Attorney General Roy Cooper joined about a dozen other states supporting the jail’s position.
Again, the plaintiff in the case was arrested for failure to pay a fine — a violation, not a crime in his state — and spent a week in jail while the matter was pending. He was subjected to a “close visual inspection” (the court’s words) while undressed before he was put in jail immediately following his arrest and again when he was transferred.
The majority said the searches did not violate the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights because the searches served an important purpose: the health and safety of the jail’s population and personnel. The opinion went on to explain that the searches were justified for three reasons: detecting lice and contagious infections, looking for evidence of gang affiliation (tattoos, for example) and looking for contraband the detainee may be attempting to smuggle into the facility.
As for the question of the severity of the crime, the court noted that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was initially pulled over for driving without a license plate. “The most devious and dangerous criminals” can come to jails on the most minor of offenses, the majority warned.
In a concurring opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito suggested that the decision left room for an exception. They said that the ultimate destination of the detainee could determine the need for a strip search: In the general population, the search would be a must; set apart, however, the search would not be necessary.
We’ll discuss the diseenting opinion in our next post.
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