The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. Does forcing a citizen to strip naked and be examined by a public official, even for a very minor offense, constitute an unreasonable search? Apparently not.
Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling on Monday, people arrested for any offense no matter how small can be strip-searched before admittance to jail. With a 5-4 vote, the ruling was close. However, the effects of the ruling are raising concerns across the country.
The petitioner in the case was a man instructed on two occasions to “remove his clothing while an officer looked for body markings, wounds, and contraband; had an officer look at his ears, nose, mouth, hair, scalp, fingers, hands, armpits, and other body openings; had a mandatory shower; and had his clothes examined. Petitioner claims that he was also required to lift his genitals, turn around, and cough while squatting.” This was all for failing to appear at a hearing to enforce a fine.
Justice Kennedy, who wrote the opinion of the court, claimed that the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments did not fit the framework of this case because “the search procedures at the county jails struck a reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the needs of the institutions.” He also mentioned, “The seriousness of an offense is a poor predictor of who has contraband, and it would be difficult to determine whether individual detainees fall within the proposed exemption.”
The justices who were in agreement with Kennedy were Justices Roberts (Chief Justice), Scalia, Alito, and Thomas. The dissenting justices were Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan. The dissenting opinion warned that some of these searches may be “a serious affront to human dignity and to individual privacy.”
To be clear, this ruling applies to those only who are admitted to jails. This also means that, hopefully, the strip search will be done in a private manner and location. However, it does provide opportunity for further abuse.
In closing, let’s look at an excerpt from a New York Times article that highlights some of the ridiculous things that could end up requiring strip-searches:
According to opinions in the lower courts, people may be strip-searched after arrests for violating a leash law, driving without a license and failing to pay child support. Citing examples from briefs submitted to the Supreme Court, Justice Breyer wrote that people have been subjected to “the humiliation of a visual strip-search” after being arrested for driving with a noisy muffler, failing to use a turn signal and riding a bicycle without an audible bell. A nun was strip-searched, he wrote, after an arrest for trespassing during an antiwar demonstration. So were victims of sexual assaults and women who were menstruating.