Albert W. Florence

  • April 5, 2012
    Guest Post

    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.

  • April 3, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Inimai Chettiar, Policy Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, where she serves as national legislative counsel to end mass incarceration in states across the country.

    Yesterday a divided Supreme Court ruled in Florence v. Burlington that any person arrested can be subject to a strip search - even for a minor offense or traffic violation – without any reason to suspect that they may be carrying a weapon or contraband. (Read the ACLU press release here.)

    As disturbing as the practice of subjecting people accused of minor offenses to degrading strip searches is, it wouldn’t be a problem if those people weren’t thrown behind bars in the first place. Unfortunately, U.S. jails are full of people accused of minor, nonviolent crimes. One such person was Albert Florence (pictured), a 35-year-old Black man erroneously arrested in 2005 for failing to pay a traffic fine he had already paid –  and whose experience is the center of the case decided by the Court.

    A New Jersey state trooper pulled over Florence’s pregnant wife as she was driving Florence and their four-year-old son to dinner to celebrate their purchase of a home.  Because Florence owned the vehicle, the officer ran his license and discovered a warrant for an outstanding noncriminal traffic fine. Despite the fact that Florence had already paid the fine and carried an official letter proving it, the police handcuffed and arrested him and dragged him off to jail.  He was incarcerated for six days and subjected to two invasive strip searches. As Florence recounts, "I was just told, 'Do as you're told.' Wash in this disgusting soap and obey the directions of the officer who was instructing me to turn around, lift my genitals up, turn around, and squat." The next day a judge freed Florence, confirming that he had in fact paid his fine.  (You can hear more from Florence in an ACS podcast interview. )

    In a 5-4 opinion, the Court held that two New Jersey county jails had not violated the Fourth Amendment by routinely strip searching all new detainees including those, like Albert Florence, who had been arrested for minor offenses and were unlikely to spend more than one night in jail. With 13 million Americans jailed each year, the decision could have far reaching consequences. 

    At the same time, the Court was careful to note that the strip search policies it upheld did not involve any physical contact with the detainee, and only applied to detainees who were housed with the general population. Whether those reservations prove to be meaningful constraints on the power of prison officials to strip search detainees remains to be seen. More significantly, perhaps, at least 10 states already prohibit routine strip searches without reasonable suspicion, including New Jersey. (Read the ACLU’s amicus brief submitted on behalf of former attorneys general of New Jersey.)

    Yesterday’s ruling provides the country with an opportune moment to reflect on our epidemic of mass incarceration. There are six million people currently in prison or under correctional supervision in the U.S. — more than were in Stalin’s gulags.

  • October 11, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Albert W. Florence had paid a fine for a New Jersey traffic violation and kept the document proving payment in his car, but that evidence was not enough to dissuade a state trooper from arresting him in 2005 and hauling him off to jail where he was kept for a week and subjected to two strip-searches during that time.

    Florence, as recounted in this interview with the National Constitution Center and ACS, was humiliated by his pointless arrest and the treatment that followed. As The New York Times’ Adam Liptak notes in this article, a “failure to pay a fine is not a crime. It is, rather, what New Jersey law calls a nonindictable crime.”

    Florence and his family were not set on letting New Jersey have the last word, and lodged a lawsuit against the county arguing that its sweeping policy of mandating strip searches of people arrested for minor offense violates the Fourth Amendment.

    “I felt like my rights were violated,” he said in the National Constitution Center/ACS podcast. “I felt belittled; I just felt like I needed some type of justification.”

    The Supreme Court may provide some answers in this matter. It will hear oral argument in the case, Florence v. Board of Freeholders, tomorrow morning.

    University of Maryland School of Law Professor Sherrilyn Ifill, during the ACS Supreme Court Preview, highlighted the case, saying it is likely to have “tremendous resonance for many people,” for several reasons, including New Jersey’s suspect history of state troopers pulling over a wildly large percentage of black drivers.   

    Ifill also noted that more than 14 million Americans are arrested every year, and “very often they are arrested and ultimately not charged.”

    In Florence’s case, he was clearly wrongfully arrested.

    “He had in fact paid the fine,” Ifill said. “And in fact, so nervous was he about the possibility of being pulled over on this outstanding warrant, that he carried with him the copy with the seal on it – the raised seal – indicating that he in fact already paid the fine, and he showed this to the officer, but the officer” opted for what the computer showed.

    After he was finally brought before a judge – Ifill noted that the authorities failed to bring Florence before a magistrate within 24 hours of his arrest, a requirement – he was cleared. The judge determined “he had in fact paid the outstanding” fine, and “therefore he should not have been arrested,” Ifill said.

    In part, the justices will be asking, Ifill said, “Can a jail have a policy of blanket strip searching everyone who comes in or whether each individual is entitled to the individualized determination of whether there is a reasonable suspicion that the individual might be carrying contraband or might otherwise be concealing a weapon of some sort.”

    But there is additional context to the case, Ifill noted.

    “Obviously race plays a key role here,” Ifill said. “Mr. Florence is African American. New Jersey of course is the place with the famous driving while black I-95 case, in which 75 percent of people stopped and arrested on I-95 by troopers were black, although blacks constituted only 30 percent of the motorists, and all of the evidence was that blacks and whites committed driving infractions at the same level; so you’ve got the race context, but you’ve also got the context of 14 million people being arrested; that the police do make mistakes.”

    Ifill’s entire remarks on the Florence case are below or here.