WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday ruled by a 5-4 vote that officials may strip-search people arrested for any offense, however minor, before admitting them to jails even if the officials have no reason to suspect the presence of contraband.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by the court's conservative wing, wrote that courts are in no position to second-guess the judgments of correctional officials who must consider not only the possibility of smuggled weapons and drugs, but also public health and information about gang affiliations.
"Every detainee who will be admitted to the general population may be required to undergo a close visual inspection while undressed," Kennedy wrote, adding that about 13 million people are admitted each year to the nation's jails.
The procedures endorsed by the majority are forbidden by statute in at least 10 states and are at odds with the policies of federal authorities. According to a supporting brief filed by the American Bar Association, international human rights treaties also ban them.
The federal appeals courts had been split on the question. The Supreme Court did not say that strip-searches of every new arrestee were required; it ruled, rather, that the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches did not forbid them.
Daron Hall, president of the American Correctional Association, said the association welcomed the flexibility offered by the decision. The association currently discourages blanket strip-search policies.
Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the four dissenters, said the strip-searches the majority allowed were "a serious affront to human dignity and to individual privacy" and should be used only when there was good reason to do so.
The decision endorsed a recent trend, from appeals courts in Atlanta, San Francisco and Philadelphia, allowing strip-searches of everyone admitted to a jail's general population. At least seven other appeals courts, on the other hand, had ruled that such searches were proper only if there was a reasonable suspicion that the arrested person had contraband.
Ruling on grand jury: The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that witnesses who lie to a grand jury are protected from civil lawsuits, giving them the same protection that witnesses get at trials.