Law and Order

Well, I certainly feel safer now that the Supreme Court has handed down its decision in Florence v. Burlington.

The issue in this case was whether jail officials have the right to strip-search anyone and everyone who is arrested, no matter what the charge and no matter the presence or lack of probable cause to believe the “strip-ee” possesses contraband or a weapon. The plaintiff in the case had been arrested for non-payment of a traffic ticket; it later turned out that he had paid his ticket, but due to a computer error, the payment wasn’t documented. (Governor Daniels can surely relate–those pesky computer errors have been cropping up with annoying frequency in his administration lately!)

According to the case syllabus,

“petitioner, like other arriving detainees, had to remove his clothing while an officer looked for body markings, wounds, and contraband; had an officer look at his ears, nose, mouth, hair, scalp, fingers, hands, arm- pits, and other body openings; had a mandatory shower; and had his clothes examined. Petitioner claims that he was also required to lift his genitals, turn around, and cough while squatting.”

The Court ruled 5-4 that authorities could lawfully require a person accused only of an unpaid traffic citation to submit to this process.

You can bet I won’t be jaywalking any time soon!

As Justice Breyer wrote in his dissent,

“In my view, such a search of an individual arrested for a minor offense that does not involve drugs or violence—say a traffic offense, a regulatory offense, an essentially civil matter, or any other such misdemeanor—is an “unreasonable search” forbidden by the Fourth Amendment, unless prison authorities have reasonable suspicion to believe that the individual possesses drugs or other contraband. And I dissent from the Court’s contrary determination.”

The majority placed a lot of emphasis on–and expressed sympathy for–the difficulties involved in running a penal institution. As a result, the Justices were unwilling to require those in charge to make initial distinctions–that is, to determine the presence or absence of probable cause sufficient to justify a bodily search of this magnitude.

But that is precisely what the 4th Amendment requires of government.

The prohibition against unreasonable searches doesn’t include a caveat for inconvenience or difficulty. And really, how threatening is a guy who’s been hauled in for an unpaid traffic ticket? If jail authorities can’t distinguish between an arrest for a traffic violation and one for theft or armed robbery, we have a lot bigger problem than strip searches.

A quick look at the breakdown of the Justices in the majority and minority certainly confirms the old saying that elections have consequences. We all need to “remember in November.”

And meanwhile, whatever you do, don’t cross against the light!