Jail Strip Searches

In Florence v. County of Burlington (2012) the US Supreme Court ruled (by a vote of 5-4) that jailers have a general right to strip search all arrestees, even those arrested for minor offenses such as vehicle code violations. Strip searches are valid under the Fourth Amendment even if jailers have no reason to believe that an arrestee has a weapon or illegal contraband like drugs secreted somewhere in a body cavity.

While the ruling was a close one, the decision probably reflects as much as anything else the majority’s unwillingness to second guess jailers’ decisions as to when a strip search may be warranted. For one thing, jail personnel might not even know why a person has been brought to jail. Thus, a decision to strip search may be more a product of conditions in the jail than a suspect’s dangerousness.

Moreover, Justice Kennedy’s opinion noted that “about 13 million people are admitted to jails each year,” making it sound like arrestees have gotten into college. Given the goings and comings of the jail population, probably only a small percentage will be strip searched anyway.

Finally, the opinion leaves plenty of room for arrestees to challenge the legality of individual searches. For example, a strip search may be invalid because of the particularly humiliating or dangerous manner in which it was conducted.