WASHINGTON — Albert Florence, a New Jersey father who was on his way to a family dinner, was stopped by a state trooper, handcuffed, taken to jail and strip searched, all because of a fine he had already paid.
The Supreme Court took up his case Wednesday, not to focus on his mistaken arrest but to decide whether the 14 million Americans who are arrested each year can be strip searched and closely examined before they enter a jail.
The Fourth Amendment forbids "unreasonable searches" by the government, and a lawyer for Florence urged the justices to rule that arrestees headed for a cell cannot be closely inspected unless there is a "reasonable suspicion" that they are dangerous.
The justices, however, sounded torn by the difficulty of setting a rule that would affect all jails.
Justice Anthony Kennedy commented that "county jails are more dangerous than penitentiaries because you don't know who these people are. You arrest them for a traffic (offense) and they may be a serial killer. You don't know."
But other justices said they were troubled by routinely subjecting people to a "visual body cavity" search. Justice Samuel Alito asked about motorists who were arrested for a traffic violation. He questioned whether a strip search of such a person is reasonable.
Lawyers for two New Jersey counties and for the Obama administration warned the justices against putting a constitutional limit on jailers. They said there is a constant danger that weapons or drugs may be smuggled into a jail.
The high court is expected to take a few months to hand down a decision.