When is a police strip search reasonable?

During the last few decades, federal courts had routinely found that subjecting an individual to a strip search, absent suspicion that the individual was concealing something, was a violation of the individual’s constitutional rights. But in 2008, federal appeals courts in Atlanta and several other circuits, changed course and said that security risks justified strip searching regardless of the reason why someone was being detained. These cases were the first round of appellate rulings after the attacks of September 11th.

Now, in a 5 – 4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that government officials may perform invasive strip searches for people who are arrested for even very minor offenses. In the dissenting opinion in the case, Justice Breyer argued that the government should at least be required to have a reasonable suspicion that a suspect is actually concealing something before a serious invasion of the suspect’s personal privacy in the form of a strip search.

This decision arose from a case in which a the police pulled over a vehicle driven by a pregnant woman, her husband was riding as a passenger and their four-year old son was in the backseat. There was a warrant for arrest out on the husband related to a fine that he had actually already paid. Having been stopped before, the husband even carried a letter that explained that the fine had been paid. But he was arrested, put in handcuffs and taken to jail.

Over the course of the next six days, the husband was kept in custody and strip-searched twice. During that time, he had not received a hearing. When he finally had a hearing before a judge, all charges against him were dismissed.

There are likely times when law enforcement officials have a strong reason to believe that people whom they have arrested may be concealing weapons, drugs, or other contraband on their person. But it is troubling that a person can be stripped naked and forced to expose himself or herself when officials have no reasonable suspicion that the arrested person is concealing anything.

Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Supreme Court OKs routine jailhouse strip searches,” Mark Sherman, April 2, 2012