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Supreme Court debates how far is too far with strip searches

Anyone who has been arrested before can tell you that it's a terrifying experience. To be put in jail while police figure out what to do with you is not only nerve-wracking, but humiliating. It is customary in many jails for newly admitted suspects to be strip-searched in order to look for weapons or contraband. While it may be reasonable to think that some suspects could be violent or have a weapon, someone arrested after a traffic violation or the failure to pay a fine should not be subjected to such an invasive and embarrassing procedure.

In an effort to create a clear rule about when a strip search exceeds the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure, the Supreme Court is considering the newest search and seizure lawsuit. The man who filed the lawsuit had been picked up by police after a computer system error indicated that he had not paid a past due fine. Police had no suspicion that the man was dangerous or that he would be carrying a weapon, but that did not prevent them from having him remove all his clothing for an invasive search.

The man was originally brought to a jail in Burlington County, New Jersey, where an officer forced him to take off all his clothes, lift his genitals and allow an officer to peer closely at private and personal areas of his body. Unfortunately, the man was then transferred to a jail in Essex County and was subjected to the same type of humiliating treatment before a magistrate judge eventually released him.

While the Supreme Court agrees that certain strip searches are sometimes necessary and constitutional, some of the justices are trying to determine if there is ever a time when a strip search would violate Fourth Amendment rights. One of the most difficult problems is where to draw the line. Some justices thought that forcing a new inmate to shower in front of an officer was acceptable, while others thought invasive searches by medical personnel were fine.

Going through a strip search can be humiliating, terrifying and traumatizing. Subjecting every single person arrested to such an invasive search seems illogical. Unfortunately, this constitutional matter is now in the hands of the Supreme Court and it is unknown how the justices are expected to vote.

Source: The Washington Post, "Supreme Court has trouble balancing strip-searches with privacy rights," Robert Barnes, "Oct. 12, 2011

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As Published in Washingtonian Magazine | Washington's Best Legal Minds | 2013