My headline might seem like hyperbole, but look at the case:
Insisting that it has no expertise in how to run a jail or prison, the Supreme Court divided 5-4 Monday in ruling that every person arrested and held temporarily can be subjected to a routine strip search, so long as it involves only a visual inspection without touching or abusive gestures. The prisoner, however, may be told to manipulate some part of the body. Some difference of emphasis among the five Justices in the majority made it appear that the decision might be more limited than at first glance.
The ruling also was a personal defeat for a Burlington County, N.J., man, Albert W. Florence, who was subjected to strip searches at two county jails over a six-day period of confinement after he had been arrested while driving on a state highway, based upon an out-of-date warrant. The warrant was for failure to pay a fine, but he had actually paid the fine; court records had not been updated. Florence has contended in public comments that he believed he had been targeted because he was a black man driving an expensive car. After a week in jail, he was released, and no charges were pursued against him.
As if somehow to help justify its ruling against his challenge to the strip searches, the Court’s main opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy opened with a description of Florence’s earlier run-in with police, seven years before the arrest that led to the strip searches. He had been arrested after fleeing from police, and was charged with obstruction of justice and use of a deadly weapon. He had pleaded guilty to less serious offenses, had paid part of the fine, but had fallen behind in his payments. That, and a failure to appear at a court hearing about the fine, led to the issuance of an arrest warrant. He had paid the remainder of the fine a week later, but the warrant remained open in computer files.
Albert W. Florence believes that black men who drive nice cars in New Jersey run a risk of being questioned by the police. For that reason, he kept handy a 2003 document showing he had paid a court-imposed fine stemming from a traffic offense, just in case.
It did not seem to help.
In March 2005, Mr. Florence was in the passenger seat of his BMW when a state trooper pulled it over for speeding. His wife, April, was driving. His 4-year-old son, Shamar, was in the back.
The trooper ran a records search, and he found an outstanding warrant based on the supposedly unpaid fine. Mr. Florence showed the trooper the document, but he was arrested anyway.
So, he was sent to jail even though he had proof that the warrant was wrong and even though owing a fine is not a jailing offense. And he was in jail for 8 days and strip searched twice.
My guess is that the majority didn’t want to admit that a previous ruling (via here) was bad, so they doubled down–the previous ruling said that people could be arrested and brought to jail for even very minor offenses.
Together these two rulings say that you can be sent to jail and strip searched for very minor offenses–remember that the next time you’re speeding or litter or eating a french fry in the wrong place or really almost anything. Freedom!