After a recent ruling, United States Supreme Court Justices may soon find themselves with their pants down.
Last Monday, the United States Supreme Court ruled that jails do not violate privacy rights by routinely strip-searching anyone for any offense, however minor, even if the officials have no reason to suspect the presence of contraband. By a 5-4 vote and splitting along conservative-liberal ideologies, the high court ruled that privacy rights involving the searches were outweighed by jail’s security concerns about a suspect hiding drugs, weapons, or other contraband. While this decision may seem to have good intentions, it only highlights the incompetence of law enforcement and gives officials an excess of power.
The justices reached this decision based on Florence v. County of Burlington, No. 10-945. In 2005, Albert W. Florence was in the passenger seat of his BMW when a state trooper pulled over his wife for speeding. Records incorrectly showed that there was an outstanding warrant for Mr. Florence’s arrest due to an unpaid fine. Mr. Florence was held and strip-searched for a week in jails in Burlington and Essex Counties. Mr. Florence recalled that he had to stand naked in front of a guard who would require him to move intimate parts of his body and told him to, “Squat and cough. Spread your cheeks.” Mr. Florence explained that it felt more like a humiliating process than a necessary process.
The Court’s conservative wing based their decision on the importance of providing heightened measures of safety for jail personal. This opinion was held by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy who represented the court’s conservative decision. Justice Kennedy cited examples of where detainees were able to sneak in contraband, including a person arrested for disorderly conduct in Washington State. This individual managed to hide a lighter, tobacco, tattoo needles, and other prohibited items in his rectal cavity. Justice Kennedy stressed the importance of catching individuals such as the Washington State arrestee because they pose a threat to both jail personal and other inmates.
Yet the first concern of many is that this violates the Fourth Amendment which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures. Justice Stephen G. Breyer argued that the Fourth Amendment should be understood to bar strip searches of people arrested for minor offenses not involving drugs or violence, unless officials had reasonable suspicion. The fact that they committed a minor offense is not reason in of itself to warrant reasonable suspicion and these individuals have the right of privacy as guaranteed by the United States Constitution.
The conservative wing of the Court acknowledged that concern, but ultimately argued that this ruling will not only protect the jail society but the public at large. This decision will impact the privacy rights of nearly 14 million jailed Americans per year, to which Justice Kennedy responded that this added measure may help them identify the most devious and dangerous criminals. To back his claim, Justice Kennedy brought up that the bomber Timothy McVeigh was first arrested for driving without a license plate and that one of the terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks was stopped and ticketed for speeding just two days before hijacking Flight 93.
However, this just illuminates the United States government’s incompetence. First of all, it is extremely hard to believe that through an invasive strip-search we may have identified and prevented Timothy McVeigh or one of the September 11 terrorists. The Supreme Court’s decision of using strip searches to identify the most dangerous of criminals is their way of saying that law enforcement cannot differentiate the good guys from the bad guys. To believe that they will catch the most devious criminals is preposterous; at most they will catch a few people here and there with contraband, but at the cost of millions of people’s right of privacy.
What is even more worrisome is that this new power can easily be abused by law officials. Justice Breyer cited examples where people were subjected to visual strip search for humiliation purposes only. These dangerous individuals were arrested and strip searched for offenses such as driving with a noisy muffler, failing to use a turn signal, and riding a bicycle without an audible bell. In one case a nun was strip-searched after an arrest for trespassing during an antiwar demonstration.
Ultimately, this ruling protects the jail population and the general public far less than the conservative Justices claim and comes at the cost of our right of privacy. Acknowledging some of the Supreme Court’s recent rulings, I fear that the rights belonging to us will only become more and more threatened. I believe that the Justices need to remember the words of Benjamin Franklin, “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.”