The five conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court are unable or unwilling to appreciate how dehumanizing a strip search is for someone taken to jail for a minor crime. The court ruled Monday 5-4 along ideological lines that maintaining order and finding contraband overrides any constitutional objections even if the person is only accused of a low-level offense and there is no reason to suspect they are hiding anything. This is a callous ruling that too easily dismisses individual rights.
Submissions in the case of Florence vs. County of Burlington ticked off a raft of arrests where people were subject to a humiliating visual strip search after being accused of minor offenses. These included being arrested for having a noisy muffler, failing to use a turn signal, violating a dog leash law and riding a bicycle without an audible bell.
This kind of casual treatment of people's privacy and dignity has been limited by at least 10 states, including Florida, which bars most strip searches of people arrested for traffic or misdemeanor offenses that don't involve violence or a controlled substance, at least until ordered detained by a judge. But it was too much for the court's conservatives to accept that the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches protects prisoners to even a small degree. Florida lawmakers should not take this as an invitation to roll back protections. Too many law enforcement agencies have engaged in abusive and unnecessary strip searches, including a 2009 case where female bartenders in street clothes and exotic dancers were strip searched in a roomful of male deputies during a drug raid in Daytona Beach Shores.
The ruling, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, is a loss for Albert Florence. He was improperly arrested in New Jersey in 2005 for an unpaid fine — he'd paid the fine — and suffered through two highly intrusive visual strip searches in two different jails before the mistake was cleared up. Now, absent a limiting state law, detention facilities may adopt blanket strip search policies for everyone placed in the general population. Even young adults arrested for underage drinking or moms detained for forgetting to buckle up a child in the backseat are at risk of being ordered into humiliating positions while naked in front of guards and other prisoners.
A dissent written by Justice Stephen Breyer and joined by the court's three other liberals called a strip search an "affront to human dignity." Breyer empirically demonstrated how unlikely it would be for contraband to evade detection even when strip searches are limited. Out of 23,000 people admitted to a facility in Orange County, N.Y., Breyer wrote that at most one case of smuggled contraband would have escaped detection under a reasonable suspicion standard.
Without a strong public safety rationale — far stronger than the one offered in this case — a strip search is not justified for low-level offenders. Strip searches are a tool of control, punishment and humiliation. The Supreme Court's decision opens the door to more of that kind of mistreatment for the sake of expediency and deference to authority and little else.