A 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday holding that a Burlington County man's civil rights were not violated when he was strip-searched after an arrest on a minor offense is spurring prison and jail authorities in the region to reexamine their policies.
The high court upheld a 2010 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said corrections officials may strip-search any inmate to prevent weapons and drugs from being smuggled in and to prevent the spread of disease.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the dissenters, called strip-searches "an affront to human dignity and to individual privacy," and said they should be used only when the charges are serious and there is a "reasonable suspicion" that warrants a search.
Before Monday's ruling, federal appeals courts across the country had handed down conflicting opinions, some of which led to class-action settlements with inmates who claimed their civil rights were violated.
In 2009, Philadelphia settled a $5.9 million suit with inmates, while Camden County paid $7.5 million to settle similar litigation in 2007.
In New Jersey, Deirdre Fedkenheuer, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, which oversees county jails, said, "We're reviewing the court's decision and its effects on the prisons and jails in the state."
Philadelphia prisons spokeswoman Shawn Hawes said inmates currently are strip-searched in only about half of the possible instances. They are ordered to disrobe and are visually inspected only if they are being held on felony charges, are obviously intoxicated, or previously were arrested on felony charges or previously were found in possession of contraband.
All incoming prisoners, however, are checked with devices that detect weapons or drugs, she said. If the devices indicate that a prisoner is carrying contraband, a strip search is performed.
Hawes said authorities were reviewing the Supreme Court decision to determine if changes were warranted.
Philadelphia Police Capt. Francis Healy, an attorney with the department, said the city had no plans to change its policy on performing strip searches before a prisoner is put in police lockup. Before any search is conducted, he said, a supervisor must authorize it. "We have a high standard," Healy said.
He noted that Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote separately for the majority, drawing a distinction between prisoners entering the general population of a correction facility and those who might be held separately - such as in a temporary police holding cell. The court said strip searches would be permissible only when inmates were placed in the general jail population.
Albert Florence, 36, of Bordentown, brought the case that landed before the court.
He said that he was subjected to strip searches in two jails seven years ago when state police arrested him during a traffic stop. He was mistakenly charged with contempt of court for failing to pay a ticket that he had paid. After serving a week in the Burlington County and Essex County jails, a judge freed him and said the error should have been found sooner.
Florence, a father of four who works as a finance manager for a car dealership, was unavailable for comment Monday. His attorney, Susan Chana Lask, said he "was disappointed - he did the best he could" to bring the issue to light.
When the case was argued before the court in October, Florence recalled in an interview with The Inquirer how the guards made him "manipulate my genitals and cough. . . . Even thinking about it still brings me chills." He also said he "was happy" back then because he appreciated that the Supreme Court was looking into the invasion-of-privacy issue.
In New Jersey, all state prison inmates are strip-searched, but in county jails, the searches can only be performed on violent criminals or those charged with serious offenses.
After a change in the code, inmates can no longer be ordered to squat and lift their genitals for a closer examination, said Carter G. Phillips, who represented Burlington County and Essex County in arguments before the Supreme Court.
Lask said the justices did not understand that the case was about "balancing constitutional rights." She said the ruling "talks about 9/11 and terrorists, and detainees in a political climate. What else are we going to expect now in a country that's daily stripping our rights away?"
Lask, a New York lawyer who took on the case pro bono, said Florence is still heading to trial in U.S. District Court in Camden to prove he was illegally arrested and illegally kept in custody for a week. A trial date has not been scheduled.
J. Brooks DiDonato, a lawyer with Parker McCay who served as special counsel to Burlington County, said the justices made the right decision. "Any Fourth Amendment right maintained by an inmate in jail is clearly outweighed by the need for institutional security and the personal safety of the inmates, staff and administrators," he said.
DiDonato also praised the court for deferring to the judgment of corrections officials who are charged with maintaining security. The justices, he said, noted a "number of instances where the inmates had smuggled contraband into the jail" because they were not strip-searched.
Kennedy, normally a swing vote on the court, joined the conservative justices and said in his majority opinion that when people are going to be put into the general jail population, "courts must defer to the judgment of correctional officials unless the record contains substantial evidence showing their policies are an unnecessary or unjustified response to problems of jail security."
Breyer, whose dissent reflected the opinion of the court's liberals, said strip searches improperly "subject those arrested for minor offenses to serious invasions of their personal privacy." He said jailers ought to have a reasonable suspicion someone may be hiding something before conducting a strip search.