WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that jails do not violate privacy rights by routinely strip-searching everyone, even those arrested on minor traffic offenses.
By a 5-4 vote and splitting along conservative-liberal ideological lines, the high court ruled that privacy rights involving the searches were outweighed by security concerns by jails about a suspect hiding drugs, weapons or other contraband.
Writing the opinion for the court’s conservative majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy concluded the jail search procedures struck a reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the needs of the institution.
The decision could have broad impact as nearly 14 million Americans spend time in jail or prison every year, including an estimated 700,000 people in jail for less serious misdemeanor offenses.
The justices upheld a ruling by a U.S. appeals court based in Philadelphia that it was reasonable to search everyone entering a jail, even without suspicion of any criminal activity.
The decision was a victory for the jails and for the Obama administration, which argued for an across-the-board rule allowing strip-searches of all those entering the general jail population, even those arrested on minor offenses.
Attorneys for Albert Florence, who was strip-searched twice at two New Jersey jails in a six-day period after his arrest for an unpaid traffic fine, argued jailers must first have reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.
Florence sued on the grounds that the conduct in 2005 at two jails in Burlington and Essex counties violated his constitutional privacy rights protecting against unreasonable searches.
At the first jail, Florence said he was ordered to hold out his arms, turn around and lift his genitals. At the second jail, Florence, a finance director at a car dealership, was ordered to squat and cough while jailers looked for contraband.
Attorneys for the jails defended the searches, saying serious problems existed with smuggled drugs and other contraband. They urged the Supreme Court to defer to the judgment of correctional administrators on what searches to use.
Kennedy rejected the proposal by Florence’s attorneys that new detainees not arrested for serious crimes involving weapons or drugs be exempt from invasive searches unless they give officers a reason to suspect them of hiding contraband.
He wrote in the 19-page opinion that security imperatives involved in jail supervision outweighed the argument that some detainees must be exempt from invasive search procedures.
“Correctional officials have a significant interest in conducting a thorough search as a standard part of the intake process,” he wrote, adding that jails and prisons face potential gang violence.
The court’s four liberals, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, dissented.
“I cannot find justification for the strip-search policy at issue here - a policy that would subject those arrested for minor offenses to serious invasions of their personal privacy,” Breyer wrote in a 14-page dissent that his liberal colleagues joined.
He cited the “serious affront to human dignity” resulting from the strip-searches.
The federal government has a policy of strip-searching anyone entering the jail’s general population.
The Supreme Court last addressed a similar issue in 1979, when it upheld strip-searches of all prisoners at a facility in New York after contacts with visitors.
The Supreme Court agreed to decide Florence’s appeal after federal courts around the country issued conflicting rulings about strip-searches in jails.
The Supreme Court case is Florence vs. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington, No. 10-945.
Reporting By James Vicini