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High court OKs strip searches for lesser offenses

Jailhouse strip searches of inmates arrested for non-indictable offenses are constitutional as long as the policy for conducting such searches strikes a reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the needs of the institutions, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

The lead plaintiff in a class action alleging §1983 civil rights violations was arrested on a bench warrant for civil contempt for failing to pay a fine. He asserted that the fine had been paid and he’d been arrested in error, but he was taken to county jail and required to strip, lift his genitals and shower in front of jail officials.

He was then transferred to another county jail, strip searched again, and directed to squat, cough and shower in front of a correctional officer before being sent to the general population.

After seven days he was released and the charges were dropped.

He and other arrestees who had been similarly searched sued the county and various individuals and municipal entities under §1983, claiming the jails’ strip search policies violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The plaintiffs moved for summary judgment, and the defendants filed a cross motion for summary judgment, alleging qualified immunity.

A U.S. District Court granted the plaintiffs’ motion, and denied the defendants’ motion.

But the 3rd Circuit reversed, holding that the strip search procedures were reasonable.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in October 2011.

In a 5-4 ruling, the justices affirmed the 3rd Circuit.

In a majority opinion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the majority stressed the importance of prison policies designed to keep weapons, drugs and other contraband out of jailhouses, and noted that even those accused of minor offenses can be dangerous. Limiting searches to only those arrested for major offenses could impose unreasonable risks.

“The restrictions suggested by petitioner would limit the intrusion on the privacy of some detainees but at the risk of increased danger to everyone in the facility, including the less serious offenders themselves,” Kennedy wrote.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel Alito Jr. filed concurrences emphasizing the limited nature of the Court’s ruling – specifically that the ruling applies to inmates who will be released into the general jail population, and that the ruling does not foreclose the possibility that constitutional violations can be found in exceptional cases.

Justice Stephen Breyer filed a dissent, which was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

U.S. Supreme Court. Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington, No. 10-945.

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