Is everyone who enters jail subject to a strip search, even when the charged offense is minor?
Disrobing in front of a watchful government official is known as a “strip search.” Some strip searches go one step further, requiring the suspect to expose his or her genital and anal areas for a close visual inspection—a “visual body cavity search.” By anyone’s standards, such searches are humiliating and traumatic.
The Supreme Court has acknowledged that such a search is subject to the Fourth Amendment—that it must be disallowed if it is “unreasonable.” (Safford v. Redding, U.S. Supreme Court, 2009.) So the question becomes, is it unreasonable to require every person who enters the jail, regardless of the nature of the charged offense, to submit to such a search?
Some courts have said that only those whose crimes suggest that they will be carrying weapons or contraband should be required to undergo a strip search—that a strip search is warranted only when jailers have “reasonable suspicion” of such intentions. Other courts have focused on the need for jails to keep out weapons and contraband and to ensure other inmates’ safety, concluding that although the searches are intrusive, they are reasonable under the circumstances.
The U.S. Supreme Court settled the issue in the case of Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, which involved a strip search of an arrestee who was arrested and taken to jail because county officials had not deleted a civil contempt order for failure to pay a fine that Florence had in fact paid. Like everyone else entering that jail, Florence endured a visual strip (and body cavity) search, which turned up nothing but was deeply disturbing. Nonetheless, the Court said the search was legal. (Florence v. County of Burlington, No. 10-945.)
by: Janet Portman, Attorney
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