It was a high-profile New Jersey case brought by man who claimed he had been degraded and haunted by the “horrible” experience of being strip-searched twice by Burlington and Essex County jail officials in 2005.
On Monday, in an opinion with sweeping implications for the thousands of noncriminal offenders arrested across the country each year, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the civil-rights claim of Albert Florence, ruling that detention centers do not need any suspicion or cause to strip-search a detainee.
“Maintaining safety and order at detention centers requires the expertise of correctional officials, who must have substantial discretion to devise reasonable solutions to problems,” wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for the court’s majority.
In a 5-4 decision that split the court’s conservative and liberal wings down the middle, the dissenting justices wrote on Monday that a jail should first decide whether there is a reasonable belief a detainee is concealing something on him before forcing that detainee to be strip searched.
“(T)he seriousness of the offense may be a poor predictor of who has contraband,” Kennedy also wrote, as he sought to explain that on the ground-level at the nation’s rough-and-tumble jails, it would simply be “unworkable” to force officials to determine who may be a “suspicious” smuggler of contraband, and who may not.
The case itself was thrust into the national spotlight almost a year ago, when the high court announced that it would hear Florence’s claim. Litigators and experts realized immediately that the upcoming Supreme Court ruling would set clear national law on an important issue that would likely affect tens of thousands of people in the years to come who would be arrested for minor alleged offenses.
Indeed, there had been a split in recent years among the country’s powerful federal appellate courts, with several going against the trend of earlier years — ruling that, in their view, the “reasonable suspicion” test was not necessary, and that instead a blanket strip-search rule made the most sense.
Florence, of Bordentown and now 36, held a news conference in Newark last April with t civil rights litigator, Susan Chana Lask. “It’s disgusting, very disgusting,” he said through gritted teeth of the two strip-searches he’d endured. In one instance, he said in a near whisper, he was even ordered to squat down, expose his anus and cough.
Florence was arrested by the state police after his wife was pulled over for speeding and the officer noticed there was a warrant for Florence’s arrest, based on a supposed unpaid fine.
But, in fact, Florence, the father of four children and today a finance manager at a car dealership in Middlesex County, had already paid the fine.