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SCOTUS RULES: Okay to Strip Search NJ Petty Offenders in Jail

[04/02/2012 – 3:14 P.M.] This morning, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a New Jersey case that people who are arrested for traffic violations and petty criminal offenses can lawfully be subject to strip searches in county jails.  A syllabus of this opinion is printed below.
    Petitioner was arrested during a traffic stop by a New Jersey state trooper who checked a statewide computer database and found a bench warrant issued for petitioner’s arrest after he failed to appear at a hearing to enforce a fine. He was initially detained in the Burlington County Detention Center and later in the Essex County Correctional Facility, but was released once it was determined that the fine had been paid. At the first jail, petitioner, like every incoming detainee, had to shower with a delousing agent and was checked for scars, marks, gang tattoos, and contraband as he disrobed. Petitioner claims that he also had to open his mouth, lift his tongue, hold out his arms, turn around, and lift his genitals. At the second jail, petitioner, like other arriving detainees, had 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. He filed a 42 U. S. C. §1983 action in the Federal District Court against the government entities that ran the jails and other defendants, alleging Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations, and arguing that persons arrested for minor offenses cannot be subjected to invasive searches unless prison officials have reason to suspect concealment of weapons, drugs, or other contraband. The court granted him summary judgment, ruling that “strip-searching” nonindictable offenders without reasonable suspicion violates the Fourth Amendment . The Third Circuit reversed.
Held: The judgment is affirmed.
621 F. 3d 296, affirmed.
     Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part IV, concluding that the search procedures at the county jails struck a reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the needs of the institutions, and thus the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment s do not require adoption of the framework and rules petitioner pro- poses. Pp. 5−18, 19.
     (a) Maintaining safety and order at detention centers requires the expertise of correctional officials, who must have substantial discretion to devise reasonable solutions to problems. A regulation impinging on an inmate’s constitutional rights must be upheld “if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” Turner v. Safley482 U. S. 78 . This Court, in Bell v. Wolfish441 U. S. 520 , upheld a rule requiring pretrial detainees in federal correctional facilities “to expose their body cavities for visual inspection as a part of a strip search conducted after every contact visit with a person from outside the institution[s],” deferring to the judgment of correctional officials that the inspections served not only to discover but also to deter the smuggling of weapons, drugs, and other prohibited items. In Block v. Rutherford, 468 U. S. 576 −587, the Court upheld a general ban on contact visits in a county jail, noting the smuggling threat posed by such visits and the difficulty of carving out exceptions for certain detainees. The Court, in Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U. S. 517 −523, also recognized that deterring the possession of contraband depends in part on the ability to conduct searches without predictable exceptions when it upheld the constitutionality of random searches of inmate lockers and cells even without suspicion that an inmate is concealing a prohibited item. These cases establish that correctional officials must be permitted to devise reasonable search policies to detect and deter the possession of contraband in their facilities, and that “in the absence of substantial evidence in the record to indicate that the officials have exaggerated their response to these considerations courts should ordinarily defer to their expert judgment in such matters,” Block, supra, at 584–585.
     Persons arrested for minor offenses may be among the detainees to be processed at jails. See Atwater v. Lago Vista532 U. S. 318 . Pp. 5−9.
     (b) The question here is whether undoubted security imperatives involved in jail supervision override the assertion that some detainees must be exempt from the invasive search procedures at issue absent reasonable suspicion of a concealed weapon or other contraband. Correctional officials have a significant interest in conducting a thorough search as a standard part of the intake process. The admission of new inmates creates risks for staff, the existing detainee population, and the new detainees themselves. Officials therefore must screen for contagious infections and for wounds or injuries requiring immediate medical attention. It may be difficult to identify and treat medical problems until detainees remove their clothes for a visual inspection. Jails and prisons also face potential gang violence, giving them reasonable justification for a visual inspection of detainees for signs of gang affiliation as part of the intake process. Additionally, correctional officials have to detect weapons, drugs, alcohol, and other prohibited items new detainees may possess. Drugs can make inmates aggressive toward officers or each other, and drug trading can lead to violent confrontations. Contraband has value in a jail’s culture and underground economy, and competition for scarce goods can lead to violence, extortion, and disorder. Pp. 9−13.
     (c) Petitioner’s proposal―that new detainees not arrested for serious crimes or for offenses involving weapons or drugs be exempt from invasive searches unless they give officers a particular reason to suspect them of hiding contraband―is unworkable. 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. Even persons arrested for a minor offense may be coerced by others into concealing contraband. Exempting people arrested for minor offenses from a standard search protocol thus may put them at greater risk and result in more contraband being brought into the detention facility.
     It also may be difficult to classify inmates by their current and prior offenses before the intake search. Jail officials know little at the outset about an arrestee, who may be carrying a false ID or lie about his identity. The officers conducting an initial search often do not have access to criminal history records. And those records can be inaccurate or incomplete. Even with accurate information, officers would encounter serious implementation difficulties. They would be required to determine quickly whether any underlying offenses were serious enough to authorize the more invasive search protocol. Other possible classifications based on characteristics of individual detainees also might prove to be unworkable or even give rise to charges of discriminatory application. To avoid liability, officers might be inclined not to conduct a thorough search in any close case, thus creating unnecessary risk for the entire jail population. While the restrictions petitioner suggests would limit the intrusion on the privacy of some detainees, it would be at the risk of increased danger to everyone in the facility, including the less serious offenders. The Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment s do not require adoption of the proposed framework. Pp. 13−18, 19.
     Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part IV. Roberts, C. J., and Scalia and Alito, JJ., joined that opinion in full, and Thomas, J., joined as to all but Part IV. Roberts, C. J., and Alito, J., filed concurring opinions. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined.
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