Can You Be Strip-Searched?

Privacy, Crime, Rights

In a highly controversial split decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that anyone arrested for any offense can be strip-searched. The ruling doesn’t require strip-searches, but it goes against the prevailing custom of performing invasive searches on an arrestee only when there is suspicion that the individual has hidden contraband.

You might think the ruling won’t ever affect you. Most of us don’t really plan on getting arrested, right? Well, rulings from lower courts on this subject show that people may be strip-searched after even the most minor of violations, from ignoring a leash law to peaceful protesting to failing to use a turn signal.

The Ruling

The Supreme Court voted 5-4 on the strip-search ruling, with the conservative justices prevailing that strip-searches upon an arrest don’t violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches. In the decision, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that judges shouldn’t second guess the judgment of police and correctional officials, who are dealing with the possibility of smuggled weapons and drugs, and that the seriousness of a suspected offense has no bearing on who might be carrying contraband.

The case precipitating this decision came from the arrest of Albert W. Florence in New Jersey in 2005. His wife was pulled over for speeding, and a records search revealed that Florence, who was in the car, had an outstanding warrant due to an unpaid fine. He was arrested, spent a week in jail in two counties, and was strip-searched twice. The warrant turned out to be wrong–Florence had paid the fine.

Albert Florence and his attorney held that his civil rights were violated due to his treatment during that week, as the arresting officers had no reason to suspect Florence was concealing drugs, weapons, or any other contraband. Seven years later, the Supreme Court has decided otherwise, and as a result ruled that any detention center does not need suspicion or cause to strip-search anyone held there.

The Result

In the past, strip-searches have been ruled legal after someone has been found guilty of a crime and is joining the general prison population. In cases of arrests, or situations involving customs officers or airport security, there had to a reasonable suspicion the suspect was in possession of weapons, drugs, or other contraband. This ruling, which does not require suspicion, conflicts with laws in at least 10 states, as well as some federal policies and international human rights treaties.

What it boils down to, then, is that if you decide to take part in a political protest and are arrested for trespassing, or if you’ve let those traffic tickets accumulate without paying the fines, you could be ordered to strip naked. And it would be perfectly legal.

Where Else Can You Be Strip-Searched?

Jail isn’t the only place a strip search could happen. In the case of a 13-year-old strip-searched by school officials looking for ibuprofen pain-reliever, the Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that her constitutional rights were violated; that hasn’t prevented it from happening again, however, in cases where drugs were found at school or property went missing.

Strip-searches done by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have been in the news quite frequently. The TSA has searched elderly travelers in wheelchairs, diabetes patients carrying medical equipment, and a breast cancer survivor–an Alaska State Representative whose scars registered on a scanner. A woman who refused a TSA pat-down was arrested in 2010.

The U.S. Constitution, contrary to popular belief, does not actually guarantee the right to privacy, although both the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment have been used to create and uphold laws related to individual privacy rights. As privacy continues to do battle with public safety in this country, no doubt more cases will come up to test the most recent high court rulings on that very issue.