Outside editorial: Strip search ruling is baffling

The following editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Thursday:

In a shocking abdication of its responsibility to uphold Americans’ constitutional freedoms, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that people suspected of minor offenses, such as rolling through a stop light, can be stripped and have their body cavities searched by jail guards.

Writing for the slim 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the court should not second-guess prison officials.

But that is exactly why there is a court — to second-guess officials when they ignore constitutional rights and freedoms.

In this case, the court threw away the individual’s basic right not to be punished before being adjudicated.

The court’s opinion is rooted in utter paranoia, the worst of all influences on public policy. Kennedy said that “people detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals.”

He went so far as to note that the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was arrested on a traffic violation, and that one of the Sept. 11 terrorists was “ticketed for speeding just two days” before hijacking Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania.

It is baffling to consider that the U.S. Supreme Court, the esteemed arbiter of Americans’ rights and freedoms, could possibly think that cavity searches might have saved the Oklahoma City and Flight 93 victims.

The plaintiff in the strip-searches complaint, Bordentown resident Albert Florence, was no suspected terrorist. He was a passenger in a car being driven by his wife in March 2005 when a New Jersey state trooper pulled them over on Route 295 in southern Burlington County.

The trooper looked up Florence on his computer and found an outstanding warrant for an unpaid traffic fine. Florence had paid that fine two years prior, and produced a document proving it, but nontheless he was taken to the Burlington County jail, where corrections officers strip-searched him.

Florence was then transported to the Essex County jail, where guards once again made him strip, squat, cough, and move his genitals. Florence spent six days in jail before the police realized the clerical error.

But Florence isn’t the only person to have suffered this humiliating assault on his dignity. Others across the nation have been strip-searched for violating a leash law, or driving a car with a noisy muffler, or failing to pay child support, or riding a bicycle with an inaudible bell, noted Justice Stephen G. Breyer in his dissenting opinion.

Breyer correctly pointed out that the Fourth Amendment right against illegal search and seizure includes strip searches of people arrested for minor offenses not involving drugs or violence, unless jailers suspect them of carrying contraband. Breyer also noted that drugs or weapons were found in only one of 64,000 strip searches of nonviolent offenders.

That should have, but didn’t, move Kennedy, who chillingly wrote that “every detainee who will be admitted to the general population may be required to undergo a close visual inspection, while undressed.”

The court offered no guidance on this complex issue, but the obvious solution is to keep all those suspected of minor offenses separate from the general population, and hope jailers use common sense and decency in dealing with errant bicyclists, dog walkers and drivers.

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