Do prisoner strip-searches violate the Fourth Amendment?
By John Vettese, Student Voices staff writer
When Albert Florence was arrested in 2005, he was strip-searched twice by prison guards.
He had not been involved in a violent incident nor did he resist the officers who brought him in. Short of one time in his early 20s when he drove away too soon after a traffic stop, Florence had no criminal record. (His file mistakenly said he had been late paying fines for that incident, which is why the officers took him in.)
Florence says he was absolutely no threat to prison guards or inmates, and has brought a lawsuit against the prison, saying it violated his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Other people who have joined his lawsuit say they had the same experience after being arrested for harmless reasons: having a noisy muffler, failing to use a turn signal, riding a bicycle without a bell.
Why were these people strip-searched?
Because the jails they were taken to – Burlington County and Essex County correctional facilities in New Jersey – have blanket policies requiring all incoming prisoners to undergo these searches. The reason is to ensure safety; prison security wants to prevent inmates from smuggling in anything in their bodies, whether it’s drugs or weapons.
A judge in Florence’s case agreed with prison officials. When it was heard by the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Thomas Hardiman said: “It is self-evident that preventing the introduction of weapons and drugs into the prison environment is a legitimate interest of concern for prison administrators.”
But Florence argues that strip-searches aren’t necessary to stop drugs and weapons from getting inside the prisons and that they violate the Fourth Amendment. In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bell v. Wolfish that jails must have reasonable suspicion before strip-searching those arrested on minor charges.
In October, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case and weigh in on the balance between the two needs – personal privacy and prison security.
The American Bar Association sides with Florence. In a brief to the court, it wrote: “Nearly 14 million Americans are arrested each year, [and many] do not involve violence or drugs and do not suggest a motive or opportunity to smuggle contraband into a prison.”
The counterargument is that restricting prison search policies would make it easier for criminals to smuggle in contraband. In a similar case, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta suggested that if gang members knew that prison guards were forbidden to conduct extensive body searches, they would encourage one another to get arrested on minor charges – for which they would be released from prison in a few days with little more than a fine – so they could bring weapons or drugs to fellow gang members in prison.
What do you think?
Do prisoner strip-searches violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure? How should the Supreme Court balance personal privacy with prison security? Should people arrested on minor charges be strip-searched without suspicion? Where should prisons draw the line? Join the discussion!
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