The Supreme Court on Monday ruled by a 5-to-4 vote that officials may strip-search people arrested for any offense, however minor, before admitting them to jails even if the officials have no reason to suspect the presence of contraband.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, joined by the court’s conservative wing, wrote that courts are in no position to second-guess the judgments of correctional officials who must consider not only the possibility of smuggled weapons and drugs but also public health and information about gang affiliations.
About 13 million people are admitted each year to the nation’s jails, Justice Kennedy wrote.
Under Monday’s ruling, he wrote, “every detainee who will be admitted to the general population may be required to undergo a close visual inspection while undressed.”
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the four dissenters, said strip-searches were “a serious affront to human dignity and to individual privacy” and should be used only when there was good reason to do so.
The decision endorses a more recent trend, from appeals courts in Atlanta, San Francisco and Philadelphia, in allowing searches no matter how minor the charge. Some potential examples cited by dissenting judges in the lower courts and by Justice Breyer on Monday included violating a leash law, driving without a license and failing to pay child support.
The Supreme Court case arose from the arrest of Albert W. Florence in New Jersey in 2005. Mr. Florence was in the passenger seat of his BMW when a state trooper pulled his wife, April, over for speeding. A records search revealed an outstanding warrant based on an unpaid fine. (The information was wrong; the fine had been paid.)
Mr. Florence was held for a week in jails in two counties, and he was strip-searched twice. There is some dispute about the details but general agreement that he was made to stand naked in front of a guard who required him to move intimate parts of his body. The guards did not touch him.
“Turn around,” Mr. Florence, in an interview last year, recalled being told by jail officials. “Squat and cough. Spread your cheeks.”
“I consider myself a man’s man,” said Mr. Florence, a finance executive for a car dealership. “Six-three. Big guy. It was humiliating. It made me feel less than a man.”
The federal courts of appeal were divided over whether blanket policies requiring jailhouse strip-searches of people arrested for minor offenses violate the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches. At least seven had ruled that such searches were proper only if there was a reasonable suspicion that the arrested person had weapons or contraband.
Justice Kennedy said the most relevant precedent was Bell v. Wolfish, which was decided by a 5-to-4 vote in 1979. It allowed strip-searches of people held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York after “contact visits” with outsiders.
As in the Bell case, Justice Kennedy wrote, “the undoubted security imperatives involved in jail supervision override the assertion that some detainees must be exempt from the more invasive search procedures at issue absent reasonable suspicion of a concealed weapon or other contraband.”
The majority and dissenting opinions drew differing conclusions from the available statistics and anecdotes about the amount of contraband introduced into jails and how much strip-searches add to pat-downs and metal detectors.
“It is not surprising that correctional officials have sought to perform thorough searches at intake for disease, gang affiliation and contraband,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “Jails are often crowded, unsanitary and dangerous places.”
“There is a substantial interest,” he added, “in preventing any new inmate, either of his own will or as a result of coercion, from putting all who live or work at these institutions at even greater risk when he is admitted to the general population.”
In separate concurrences, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. emphasized the limits of the majority opinion. Chief Justice Roberts, quoting from an earlier decision, said that exceptions to Monday’s ruling were still possible “to ensure that we ‘not embarrass the future.’ “
Justice Alito wrote that different rules may apply for people arrested but not held with the general population or whose detentions had “not been reviewed by a judicial officer.”
In his dissent in the case, Florence v. County of Burlington, No. 10-945, Justice Breyer wrote that the Fourth Amendment should be understood to prohibit strip-searches of people arrested for minor offenses not involving drugs or violence unless officials had a reasonable suspicion that the people to be searched were carrying contraband.