North Carolina’s defense attorneys and prosecutors alike were probably taken by surprise earlier this week when they learned the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that a detainee in a county jail may be subjected to a strip search regardless of the severity of the suspected criminal offense. The detainee in the case was arrested for failing to pay a fine. At the jail, he was subjected to a strip search; when he was transferred to another jail, the same thing happened. Upon his release — the charges were dismissed, because he had paid the fine seven years earlier — he sued the prison authorities.
The majority’s opinion characterizes the issue in the case as “whether every detainee who will be admitted to the general population may be required to undergo a close visual inspection while undressed.” The justices’ argument hinged on where the detainee would be held: apart from or in the midst of the general jail population?
We discussed the case in October, when we noted that North Carolina and other states had filed briefs with the court supporting the jails. Their argument was that the search was constitutional because, first, there was no physical contact between the detainee and the officers, and, second, the purpose of the search was to protect “the health and safety of the detainee and other inmates.”
The holding goes down a slightly different avenue. The majority said that “courts must defer to the judgment of correctional officials unless the record contains substantial evidence showing their policies are an unnecessary or unjustified response to problems of jail security.” So, if the policy is to subject all detainees entering a jail to this kind of search in order to protect the health and safety of both inmates and jail personnel, it is up to the plaintiff to show that conditions in the jail render the policy unnecessary or unjustified.
There is more to it than this, of course, and we’ll get into that 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