WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused to halt routine strip searches of new jail inmates, including those arrested for minor offenses, saying the need to screen out weapons and drugs outweighs the right to privacy.
The 5-4 majority ruled it would be “unworkable” to require guards — who at large county jails must screen hundreds of new inmates — to spare those who may not appear dangerous.
The decision is a defeat for civil liberties groups and a New Jersey man who was strip searched twice after he was stopped on a highway and taken to jail, where he spent six days, over an unpaid fine that he had already paid.
“Jails can be even more dangerous than prisons because officials there know so little about the people they admit,” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
He noted that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was arrested and taken to jail for a traffic offense. Outlawing close “visual inspections” of some new inmates would raise “the risk of increased danger to everyone in the facility,” Kennedy said for the court’s conservative bloc.
Two years ago, county officials in Chicago agreed to pay a $55 million settlement to a large class of arrested people after a federal judge ruled that routine strip searches were unconstitutional.
Lawyers said many states have laws that forbid strip searches except when police or guards have reason to suspect a person entering the jail may have a weapon or drugs. The justices also said counties might want to adopt policies against putting persons behind bars, even temporarily, for unpaid fines or traffic violations. But they refused to adopt such a policy as a matter of constitutional law.
American Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Stephen Shapiro said the ruling “jeopardizes the privacy rights of millions of people who are arrested each year.” They can be strip searched, even if they “may be in jail only for a few hours,” he said.
Albert Florence, a finance director for a car dealership, was driving his wife and three children in his new BMW in 2005 when he was stopped by a New Jersey state trooper. Florence was handcuffed, put under arrest and taken to jail because of an outstanding warrant. It was all a mistake. His fine had been paid.
But Florence was held for six days in two county jails, including in Newark. He was required to remove his clothes, shower and undergo a “visual examination” by a guard. After his release, he sued the two counties for violating his privacy and subjecting him to a humiliating strip search.
Kennedy stressed the court was ruling only on the strip searches, not the circumstances of Florence’s arrest. He also noted that Essex County jail admits 25,000 inmates a year. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. agreed with his opinion.
In dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said it was unreasonable to subject possibly innocent persons to humiliating searches. He said at least 10 states limit the use of strip searches for arrestees.
“In my view, such a search of an individual arrested for a minor offense that does not involve drugs or violence is an unreasonable search forbidden by the Fourth Amendment,” he wrote. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan agreed.
The case was Florence vs. Board of Chosen Freeholders of Burlington County.