A different perspective needed

Charlie Warner
Argus News Editor

The old saying, “if the politicians and generals who declared the wars were the ones who were forced to be the cannon fodder in the fox holes, trenches and jungles, we probably wouldn’t have so many wars,” came to mind last week.

On April 2, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that individuals arrested for even the most minor offenses can be strip searched before they are jailed while awaiting a hearing. The high court’s five-to-four decision came in the case of Albert Florence, of New Jersey. He was arrested, strip searched and held in prison for a week because of a computer error.

According to published reports, when the trooper stopped Florence for a roadside check, he found an outstanding arrest warrant for Florence for failure to pay a fine seven years earlier. Florence was arrested, handcuffed and led away.

Florence was strip searched twice and jailed for seven days before he finally went before a judge and was released.

Seven days later authorities learned the computer information was wrong. Florence had paid the fine years earlier, but the state had failed to pull the arrest warrant from its files.

Florence sued prison authorities, contending that automatically strip searching a person who’s arrested for a minor offense violates the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court decided those actions did not violate Florence’s Constitutional rights.

Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed to the dangerousness of most prisons, and said that strip searching everyone routinely is a reasonable way to ensure safety for inmates and guards alike.

Writing for the four dissenters, Justice Stephen Breyer argued that when a detainee is brought in on a minor charge that involves neither violence nor drugs, correctional officials should have to cite some reason to justify a strip search. He noted that in New Jersey, prisoners have to go through advanced metal detectors.

According to an article I read, there are some 700,000 arrests for minor offenses in the U.S. each year, and most of the individuals facing these minor charges are brought before a judge and released pending resolution of their cases. But an undetermined number have found themselves strip searched and behind bars because there’s no judge on duty, because of a bureaucratic snafu, or because of an error, as in Albert Florence’s case.

Supreme Court Justices who dissented noted that people have been detained and strip searched for offenses as minor as biking with an inaudible bell, walking a dog off leash, and driving with a noisy muffler.

Justice Kennedy argued that given the number of total arrests each year – 13 million – it would be unworkable for correctional officials to exempt one class of prisoner from being strip searched. Indeed, he said, even people detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals. He cited as an example the case of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, who was initially arrested for driving without a license plate.

Experts predicted the court’s ruling might have a profound impact on practices throughout the country. At least 10 states currently have laws banning strip searches for minor offenders, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshals Service both bar the practice, too.

My inclination is to have the five Supreme Court Justices who supported this, be subjected to what Albert Florence had to endure for a week. Maybe then they’d have a different perspective on it.