Jail Strip Searches (Even for Traffic Offenses) Are OK: U.S. Sup. Ct.

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on April 03, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Go to jail, get strip searched.

This may soon be the new norm as jails begin to implement the U.S. Supreme Court's Monday ruling in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington. The Court has ruled that jail strip searches are legal -- even when an individual has been arrested for a minor traffic offense or failing to pay a fine.

The 5-4 ruling found that a suspect's Fourth Amendment privacy rights are outweighed by jailhouse security concerns.

Historically, the Supreme Court has upheld regulations that impinge upon an inmate's constitutional rights when they are "reasonably related to legitimate penological interests." Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy explains that, "there is a substantial interest in preventing any new inmate ... from putting all who live or work at these institutions at even greater risk." It's therefore reasonable for correctional facilities to check every new inmate for drugs, weapons and other contraband.

Even a low-level offender could be carrying a weapon.

The dissent, written on behalf of the four liberal justices, disagreed with this assertion. They believe that jail strip searches are legal only when officers have reasonable suspicion. Jail strip searches are "inherently harmful, humiliating and degrading." This harm is "particularly acute where the person ... had simply received a traffic ticket ... or because she had been arrested for a minor trespass."

Though many citizens would prefer this interpretation, the majority's decision is now law. Jail strip searches are legal so long as the searched individuals are going to be placed in the general prison population. The underlying offense and the reason for the search are pretty much irrelevant.

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