A person's constitutional rights do not end once law enforcement places them under arrest. These rights include a right to privacy and protection against unreasonable searches. However, some individuals have less protection from government searches. For example, inmates in correctional facilities may have a reduced expectation of privacy. In certain situations, corrections officers may intrude more heavily on a prisoner's rights than a non-prisoner's.
One such intrusion is a strip search. Law enforcement officers perform these searches to search for concealed objects. Government officials can generally strip search someone if the search is related to limited reasonable objectives.
Strip searches implicate and can intrude upon basic human dignity. Everyone, including detainees, has certain rights related to strip searches. Some state laws require law enforcement to obtain written authorization to conduct a strip search. This article discusses when and how government officials can perform strip searches.
Fourth Amendment Protection Against Government Searches
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people against unreasonable governmental searches. In criminal law, Fourth Amendment protections apply in the following situations:
The degree of protection available depends on the facts of each situation. For example, the following may affect whether a search is lawful or not:
- The nature of the detention or arrest
- The nature of the place searched
- The circumstances surrounding the search
Generally, law enforcement officials must have probable cause to conduct a reasonable search. Additionally, a search is presumptively unlawful if law enforcement does not obtain a valid search warrant. However, what if a person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their person, place, or belongings? In that case, law enforcement does not need probable cause to search.
Strip searches do not require police officers to show probable cause. Instead, if a police officer has a reasonable suspicion the suspect is concealing a weapon or contraband, they can perform a strip search. Typically, law enforcement must conduct these searches at a police station, jail, or prison. Thus, police may perform a strip search if they believe you are hiding the following under your clothes:
- Another illegal object
Supreme Court rulings and other case law have clarified search and seizure rules and exceptions. This article discusses several cases detailing strip searches. Consider contacting a criminal defense attorney if you have questions regarding strip searches.
What Is a Strip Search?
Generally, a strip search is a search where law enforcement officials require the suspect to undress. The search's purpose is to reveal concealed objects. A strip search can include visual body cavity searches. Alternatively, it can consist of just a visual inspection of a person's body for scars or tattoos.
There are two basic types of strip searches. A security strip search is performed in institutions such as jails or prisons. Law enforcement conducts these searches to preserve the safety of the general jail population. A strip search incident to arrest is performed to uncover evidence of criminal activity. It is also performed to keep an officer safe during or immediately after an arrest.
Federal circuit courts have discussed what actions constitute a strip search. For example, in Doan v. Watson (2001), the court determined that law enforcement's observing of inmates showering was a strip search. Moreover, in Safford Unified School District v. Redding (2009), school officials required a female student to strip her undergarments. The court concluded that the search constituted a strip search.
A strip search can be both invasive and embarrassing. Law enforcement must follow specific protocols to perform a valid strip search. However, jails and prisons regularly perform strip searches on inmates. These searches help prevent drug trafficking, weapon trafficking, or contraband smuggling.
Strip Searches in Jail or Prison
Correctional officers have more leeway to order a strip search in a county jail or prison. They can perform a strip search if the search is related to reasonable objectives, such as safety. The Supreme Court concluded that unique concerns of safety and security in jails allow law enforcement this ability.
These searches sometimes occur when law enforcement charges the arrestee with a minor offense. Police can perform strip searches without the factors that would give rise to a suspicion that the arrestee possessed concealed contraband.
For example, a person could find themselves arrested over a warrant for a misdemeanor or traffic violation. Law enforcement may subject them to a strip or body cavity search upon their arrival at the jailhouse. This is allowed, even though nothing about their case would lead police to believe they had anything dangerous or prohibited on their person.
Inmate Strip Searches
The Supreme Court ruled in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington (2012) that law enforcement can strip search inmates. They can perform these searches regardless of an individualized suspicion. The underlying offense's severity is also irrelevant. Such searches do not constitute an unreasonable search. Therefore, they do not violate the Fourth Amendment.
In Florence, the Court determined that penal institutions have an undeniable need to keep their facilities safe and orderly. The Court determined that any requirement forcing correctional institutions to exclude individuals from searches when there was no specific reason to suspect that the individual was concealing contraband would undermine the institution's interest in protecting its staff and inmates.
Because of this decision, jails and prisons can strip search new inmates upon their arrival at the facility. The strip search is valid as long as the search is related to the facility's need to maintain safety and order. Therefore, the type of criminal offense does not matter. An individual may go through a strip search after an arrest, even if the arrest warrant was issued in error. That was the case for the plaintiff in Florence.
Reasonableness of Strip Searches After an Arrest
A search incident to arrest does not require a warrant or probable cause. However, a strip search incident to arrest might be an unreasonable violation of a person's right to privacy. The Supreme Court addressed this issue in Bell v. Wolfish (1979). The case involved pretrial detainees' challenge to a New York detention facility's strip search policy. The policy required every inmate “to expose their body cavities for visual inspection" whenever they made contact with someone from outside the facility.
In Bell, the Supreme Court balanced the interests of facility safety versus inmate privacy. The Court focused on the reasonableness of the searches. The Court discussed the reasonableness of inmate strip and body cavity searches. Specifically, the Court said:
"Courts must consider the scope of the particular intrusion, the manner in which it is conducted, the justification for initiating it, and the place in which it is conducted."
Under this reasoning, a jailhouse strip search procedure was allowed. Under different circumstances, the same invasive search would have been illegal. For example, if the strip search occurred outside a suspect's car for a speeding ticket.
Strip Searched After an Arrest? Speak With a Criminal Defense Attorney
Inmates have fewer rights in the setting of a prison or jail. But they still have rights and are protected by the Constitution. A qualified criminal defense lawyer can help make the case for bail. They can also argue and negotiate on your behalf leading up to and including trial. You can get started today by contacting an experienced criminal defense lawyer or civil rights attorney in your area.