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U.S. Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument on Illegal Strip Searches — Ruling Could Limit When San Antonio Officers May Search Detainees

Thumbnail image for supreme court.jpgOn October 12, 2011, the United Supreme Court continued its new term and heard oral arguments on a case that is a Fourth Amendment issue. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which applies to the citizens of San Antonio, states that: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” While the oral arguments are over, the opinion from the court is to be determined.

Albert W. Florence, Petitioner v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington, et al. raises the question of whether or not a jail or prison has the right to conduct a strip search on every person who is taken into custody, no matter what the charge(s) may be. This is a Fourth Amendment issue dealing with suspicion-less strip searches – should there be a flat rule or should it be determined on a case by case basis? This particular case began in 2005 when Florence was in the car with his pregnant wife and 4-year-old daughter on their way to dinner at his mother-in-law’s house. His wife was driving and was pulled over for a routine traffic stop. Because the car was registered in Mr. Florence’s name, the officer asked to see his identification in addition to his wife’s. When the information was checked, the officer saw that there was a warrant for Florence because of an unpaid fine. Florence carried a copy of the court record to show that he actually paid the fine, but the officer took him into custody anyway. Florence was in custody in both Burlington and Essex Counties for a total of six days before he saw a judge, at which time he was immediately released. While he was in custody, Florence was subjected to two strip searches. Florence filed a lawsuit because he asserted that the searches were unreasonable because he was being held for failure to pay a fine, which is not a criminal offense in New Jersey (and let’s not forget that he had already paid the fine).

The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey ruled that blanket strip searches for minor offenses are unconstitutional. However, officials representing both Burlington and Essex Counties appealed the decision. The United States Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit reversed the decision, stating that it is reasonable to search everyone, even without suspicion that a person may be concealing a weapon or drugs.

The outcome of this case will have a far-reaching impact in every corner of the country. While there is no denying that the balance between the security of the jails and the rights of individuals can be a touchy subject, are citizens really to believe that people arrested for non-violent, minor offenses (i.e. traffic violations or contempt of court) pose as serious threat? Those taken into custody do not forfeit all constitutional protections and therefore should be allowed a level protection to be free from degrading, humiliating, and dehumanizing treatment.

If you or a loved one has been arrested or is being investigated, contact criminal defense attorney Dayna L. Jones at (210) 255-8525 to schedule an appointment with the attorney. Calls are answered 24 hours a day, 7 days per week.