By Angela J. Davis, Professor of Law, American University, Washington College of Law
The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a jailhouse strip search of a man who was wrongfully arrested for a minor offense in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington. Mr. Florence was riding in his car with his pregnant wife and son (his wife was driving) when a police officer pulled them over. The officer ran Mr. Florence’s name through his computer and discovered a warrant for his arrest. The warrant was issued when Mr. Florence (pictured) failed to appear at a contempt hearing regarding fines that he had not paid. Mr. Florence did appear, and he paid the fines, but the warrant was not removed from the computer database. Mr. Florence actually showed the police officer written documentation that he had complied with the court’s order, but the officer arrested him anyway. Mr. Florence was incarcerated for six days and subjected to two complete strip searches requiring him to lift his genitals, squat, cough and spread his buttocks. He was ultimately released when a court discovered the mistake.
The 5-4 decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and joined by the conservative wing of the court, rejected Mr. Florence’s argument that the searches were unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The Court also rejected Mr. Florence’s proposal that new detainees arrested for minor offenses be exempt from strip searches unless there is reasonable suspicion to believe they are hiding contraband. The Court called the proposal “unworkable” – an interesting characterization considering the fact that the proposal seems to be working just fine in the ten states where the reasonable suspicion standard is currently the law.