People get arrested for many different types of crimes–some serious and some not-so-serious. If you happen to have been arrested for one of those not-so-serious sorts of crimes—trespassing, for example–are the police allowed to strip search you after they have taken you to the local jail? That was the question addressed by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Albert Florence versus the Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington.
The facts in the Florence case are as follows:
Mr. Florence was arrested during a traffic stop by a New Jersey state trooper who checked a statewide computer database and found an arrest warrant issued for Florence’s arrest after he failed to appear at a hearing to enforce a fine. He was initially detained in the Burlington County Detention Center and later in the Essex County Correctional Facility, but was released once it was determined that the fine had been paid. At the first jail, Florence, like every other incoming prisoner, had to shower with a chemical that is used to get rid of head lice, and he was checked for scars, marks, gang tattoos, as well as for things like drugs and weapons as he undressed. Mr. Florence claimed that he also had to open his mouth, lift his tongue, hold out his arms, turn around, and lift his genitals.
At the second jail, Florence, like other arriving prisoners, had to remove his clothing while an officer looked for body markings, wounds, and illegal objects. An officer also looked at his ears, nose, mouth, hair, scalp, fingers, hands, armpits, and other body openings. He had a mandatory shower, and his clothes were examined. Florence claimed that he was also required to lift his penis, turn around, and cough while squatting.
When his case eventually reached the Supreme Court, Mr. Florence argued that people who are arrested for minor crimes should not be subjected to strip searches unless jail officials have reason to believe that a particular individual is concealing weapons, drugs, or some other type of illegal object on his or her person.
Unfortunately for Florence, the Supreme Court rejected his argument for the following reasons:
1. Maintaining order and safety at jails requires that jail officials be given substantial discretion to devise reasonable solutions to problems.
2. Jail officials have a significant interest in conducting a thorough search as a standard part of the intake process.
3. The admission of new inmates creates risk for jail staff, the existing inmates, and for the new inmates themselves.
4. People arrested for minor crimes are among those who are processed at jails.
5. Jail officials must screen new arrivals for contagious infections and for injuries that require immediate medical attention. It may be difficult to identify and treat such medical problems until inmates remove their clothes for a visual inspection.
6. Because jails must deal with potential gang violence, jail officials should be allowed to visually inspect the bodies of new arrivals for signs of gang affiliation.
7. Jail officials should be allowed to inspect new arrivals for such things as drugs, alcohol, and weapons in order to protect both the jail staff and the inmates themselves.
8. Experience shows that people arrested for minor crimes have tried to smuggle illegal items into jails, sometimes by using their rectal cavities or genitals in order to conceal the items. For example, one man arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol was found to have two small bags of marijuana, one pack of rolling papers, 20 matches, and five sleeping pills taped under his scrotum.
9. Some people who are arrested for minor crimes make a snap decision to hide illegal items on their persons in order to avoid getting into even more trouble.