AirTalk for April 3, 2012

Should strip searches in jail for minor offenses be allowed?

U.S. Supreme Court building

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled in a five-to-four decision that jailers may strip search people arrested even for minor violations. The court, with its conservative wing defending security above privacy in jails, ruled against New Jersey man Albert Florence, who was strip searched in two county jails after his arrest in 2005 on a warrant for an unpaid fine he had actually paid.

In the case, Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington, the court decided the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, does give jails the right to conduct strip searches on every person arrested for minor offenses no matter the circumstances.

"The problem we have with regard to jails in particular, is they for some period of time, no matter that you're arrested for, you're in a mixed population of people who have been arrested who's criminal history ... who's ability to pull a weapon out of a private area are unknown," said Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. "This is the problem that corrections officials have to face every day… Part if their obligation is to protect other people in that jail from other people."

Rushford says the problem varies depending on the jail, because some jails have the space and resources to separate out questionable people from the general population. Many time larger city jails do not have the resources to keep inmates separated from each other.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that courts must defer to judgment of correctional officials “unless the record contains substantial evidence showing their policies are an unnecessary or unjustified response to problems of jail security.” In the dissenting opinion supported by the court’s liberals, Justice Stephen Breyer said strip searches subject those arrested to minor offenses to serious invasions of their privacy.

Susan Chana Lask, Florence's attorney, says a systematic use of strip searching is wrong, given that officers have multiple ways to judge whether someone poses a threat to them or other inmates.

"The guards have the ability to know when someone's on PCP. With that ability… they can certainly pat someone down and assess the risk," she said. "There's about five procedures they can do before just blanket strip-searching everyone that walks in. When someone's walking in like Albert Florence who had no record and he was brought in on a warrant that didn't exist… asking this innocent man to strip, squat and cough, that's just wrong. There's no need for that."

Have you been arrested for a minor offense and felt unjustly subjected to a strip search? Do safety and security within an environment as potentially dangerous as a jail outweigh issues of privacy?

Guests:

Susan Chana Lask, constitutional and civil rights attorney, and lawyer for Albert Florence, a New Jersey man the Supreme Court ruled against, who was strip searched in two county jails after his arrest on a warrant for an unpaid fine that he had actually paid

Michael D. Rushford, president and CEO of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a nonprofit, public interest law organization dedicated to improving the administration of criminal justice and defending the rights of crime victims


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