Supreme Court Petitioned To End Misdemeanor Strip Searches
September 15, 2011 by Sam Rolley
A New Jersey man is taking a case of what he calls a violation of his 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Albert Florence was arrested by mistake in 2005 because of a bench warrant issued for a fine he had paid off years earlier. Despite having documentation of compliance with the court, a New Jersey state trooper arrested Florence during a routine traffic stop as his wife and child watched. Florence then spent seven days in jail.
Florence was reportedly strip searched at two separate jails, despite there being no evidence that he had any contraband or violent behaviors. Florence sued and lost and then appealed to a Philadelphia Court of Appeals, where he also lost.
The courts both ruled that it is not unreasonable to search all incoming prisoners, no matter the charge, citing recent appeals court rulings that found there is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits blanket strip searches of incoming prisoners.
A 1979 Supreme Court verdict in Bell v. Wolfish sanctioned “the practice of body-cavity searches of inmates following contact visits with persons from outside the institution; and the requirement that pretrial detainees remain outside their rooms during routine inspections.” That decision was once interpreted by Federal courts to mean that reasonable suspicion must be noted before individuals arrested on minor charges are strip searched.
The American Bar Association has backed Florence in his fight, issuing a brief to the Supreme Court.
Nearly 14 million Americans are arrested each year. Many of these arrests are for misdemeanor offenses or a civil infraction that—like the offense of which petitioner was accused—do not suggest a motive or opportunity to smuggle contraband into a prison. Neither the Petitioner nor this majority of arrestees should be subject to the grave intrusion of a strip search on admission to a detention facility unless there is individualized, reasonable suspicion of possession of contraband.
Florence has been joined in his petition for suit against two New Jersey jails by others who have been strip searched following misdemeanor offenses. In the brief, Florence’s attorney outlines other instances in which people arrested for minor offenses were strip searched over the years: Sister Bernie Galvin, a nun arrested in California at an anti-war protest; Bettye Heathcock, arrested in Washington, D.C., for leaving a parking garage because the toll was too high; Karen Masters, arrested in Kentucky for failing to appear in traffic court because she was given the wrong date by the judge; Vivian Anderson Smith, arrested in Maryland for not showing up for a child support hearing. The brief also includes a list of other misdemeanor offenses for which one might be strip searched.
The lawyers also allege in the brief that some officers knowingly conduct unnecessary strip searches because of underlying sadism and desensitization to subjects’ humiliation. The brief cites a book by Phillip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, which is based on a study of a simulated prison in 1971. Zimbardo observed two groups of Stanford University students, one designated prisoners and one designated guards, to observe the effects of the manifestation of absolute power of one individual over another. The study lasted only days before the “guards” became so abusive and degrading to their “prisoner” counterparts that the study had to be ended.
Florence’s lawyer also said in the brief to the court that 18 states, including New Jersey, prohibit search without reasonable suspicion, further supporting the 4th Amendment to the Constitution.