April 2, 2012
U.S. Supreme Court 4-2-12 Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington
Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington Fourth Amendment – Strip Searches
Facts: From an old case, Mr. Florence owed a fine in Essex County, New Jersey. At the time the court imposed the fine, Mr. Florence set up a payment plan. He fell behind on the payment plan, and the court issued a warrant. After the warrant issued, Mr. Florence paid off the remaining amount owed. However, the warrant still showed up on New Jersey State Patrol’s statewide database. Later, in a routine traffic stop on a minor traffic infraction, the warrant showed up, and the state patrol arrested Mr. Florence. As part of a standard procedure, jail personnel strip-searched all new inmates/detainees. After being released, Mr. Florence filed a civil rights suit. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Mr. Florence. The U.S. Supreme Court summarized the District Court’s reasoning, “It concluded that any policy of ‘strip searching’ nonindictable offenders without reasonable suspicion violated the Fourth Amendment.”
Issue: Whether a suspicionless strip-search on an arrestee who will be admitted into a jail’s general population violates the Fourth Amendment?
Reasoning: The Supreme Court, with Justice Kennedy writing for the majority, reasoned that prevention of weapons, drugs, and violence permitted warrantless and suspicionless strip searches on anyone who will be admitted into a jail’s general population. However, in concurring opinions, both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito pointed out the possible limitations and/or exceptions to the rule announced today by the court. Justice Alito wrote, “It is important to note, however, that the Court does not hold that it is always reasonable to conduct a full strip search of an arrestee whose detention has not been reviewed by a judicial officer and who could be held in available facilities apart from the general population. Most of those arrested for minor offenses are not dangerous, and most are released from custody prior to or at the time of their initial appearance before a magistrate. In some cases, the charges are dropped. In others, arrestees are released either on their own recognizance or on minimal bail. In the end, few are sentenced to incarceration. For these persons, admission to the general jail population, with the concomitant humiliation of a strip search, may not be reasonable, particularly if an alternative procedure is feasible.
Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayor and Kagan, dissented. The dissent argued any suspicionless search on minor offenses violated the Fourth Amendment. In the end, the majority, the concurrences and the dissent highlighted the indignity and humiliation of strip searches. All the justices, except Justices Scalia and Thomas, seemed to agree that minor offenders who will not be admitted into the general population should not be strip searched without at least a showing of reasonable suspicion.