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U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Intrusive Jailhouse Searches

April 3, 2012 Criminal Law and Procedure

In Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that intrusive searches of all inmates during the intake process are permitted.

In 1998, Florence was arrested for fleeing a police officer in Essex County, New Jersey. He plead to two offenses and was sentenced to pay a fine in monthly installments. In 2003 he fell behind on the payments and a bench warrant was issued for his arrest. Florence paid the balance less than a week later but the warrant remained in the database. Two years later Florence was pulled over by a state trooper and arrested based on that warrant.

Florence was first taken to the Burlington County Jail. There Florence was deloused in a shower and inspected for tattoos, marks, scars, and other identifying features. He was instructed to open his mouth, lift his tongue, arms, and genitals. After six days at this jail Florence was moved to the Essex County Correctional Facility. At Essex County Florence underwent a comprehensive search per jail policy that applies to all incoming inmates.  Florence claims he was made to strip naked, lift his genitals, and cough in a squatting position. He was released the next day after the charges against him were dismissed. In neither of the searches was it alleged that security guards made physical contact during the search, but instead stood apart and watched.

It was these searches rather than the arrest that led Florence to file a federal civil rights suit.

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The suit alleged that intrusive searches without reasonable suspicion of individuals arrested for minor offenses, where inmates are forced to expose private parts, are violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Florence brought this suit along with a class of other inmates who were charged with minor offenses and were processed at either of the two jails where Florence was taken. The suit maintained that officials should only engage in such intrusive searches where officials have reason to believe that an individual possesses a weapon, drugs, or other illegal material.

The District Court granted Florence’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that a “strip search” policy without reasonable suspicion violated the Fourth Amendment. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, opting to strike a balance between security measures and inmate privacy.

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The Fourth Amendment provides that individuals have the right to be secure in their person from unreasonable searches and seizures. Generally, in order to conduct a warrantless search of an individual, law enforcement officials must have reasonable suspicion that the individual possesses a weapon or other contraband.

The Court in previous cases has held that a regulation infringing on an inmate’s constitutional rights must be upheld if “it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” For example, in Bell v. Wolfish, the Court upheld a regulation in which inmates in a federal facility were strip searched after every visit with a person from outside the prison. In Block v. Rutherford, the Court ruled that the Los Angeles County Jail could ban all contact visits because such visits opened up the jail to the possible introduction of contraband. In Hudson v. Palmer, the Court upheld random searches of inmate cells even without reasonable suspicion of inmate possession of contraband.

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The Court prefers to defer to the judgment of correctional officers in determining appropriate security measures. Many correctional facilities across the country engage in some type of strip search process for incoming inmates, including those arrested for minor offenses. Correctional facilities face obvious problems when inmates possess weapons or drugs. Carving out exceptions for individuals can lead to problems, the greatest of which is that a person may possess dangerous contraband even though the arrest was for a minor offense.

There must be substantial evidence that prison officials have exaggerated their response to a situation in order for there to be a constitutional violation.

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