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Get Ready to Get Naked: SCOTUS Upholds Prison Strip Search

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

We credit the Supreme Court with expertise over pretty much everything because the Court has the final say in any issue it reviews. In particular, the Nine are deemed to know more about nudity than any other group in America because they are frequently called upon to decide whether nudity is obscene and if it should be punished.

The Court, however, does not approach the propriety of prison strip searches, with the same “I-know-it-when-I-see-it” confidence as most cases involving nudity. On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld a New Jersey prison strip search policy, noting that the “a regulation impinging on an inmate’s constitutional rights must be upheld if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”

New Jersey state troopers arrested the petitioner in the case, Albert Florence, in 2005 on an outstanding warrant for an unpaid fine. Florence had actually paid the fine; the state's records were incorrect.

Florence spent seven days in jail based on the state's record-keeping error; he was strip-searched twice during that time while waiting for the issue to be resolved. After his release, he challenged the blanket prison strip search policy, claiming that detainees who were not arrested for violent offenses or drug charges should not be strip-searched.

In Florence's case, county jail procedures required every arrestee to shower with a delousing agent. Officers would check arrestees for scars, marks, gang tattoos, and contraband as the arrestees disrobed, and then get the arrestees' assistance in inspecting other bodily nooks and crannies. Prison staff were not only looking for concealed weapons and drugs; they were inspecting arrestees for contaminants, diseases, and injuries before throwing the suspects in with the general population.

According to the Court, Florence's proposal that non-violent/non-drug offenders should be exempt from the prison strip search was unworkable based on the variety of health and safety concerns attached to prisoner intake. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, concluded that prisons offer "significant reasons why the Constitution must not prevent them from conducting the same search on any suspected offender who will be admitted to the general population of their facilities."

Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito joined in Justice Kennedy's majority opinion in the case, and their concurring opinions indicate that they would restrict prison strip searches to arrestees who will be introduced into the general prison population. However, Alito indicated that strip searches are inappropriate in catch and release cases, or any instance in which a detainee can be held apart from the general population.

What do you think? Did the Court make the right call?

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