By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that people arrested over traffic and other minor offenses can be strip-searched even if there is no reasonable suspicion that they are concealing weapons or contraband. But the court's decision goes too far. Jailers have a responsibility to make sure that their facilities are secure, but they can do so without the blanket authority the court has given them.
The decision was a defeat for Albert Florence, a finance director for a car dealership who was on his way to a family celebration when a New Jersey state trooper stopped his car and, after finding that he had an outstanding warrant, arrested him. The warrant had been issued because of a fine that he actually had paid. Florence was taken to a county jail where, he said, he was ordered to strip and lift his genitals, while an officer inspected him from an arm's length away. After six days, he was transferred to another facility, where he was subjected to a similarly invasive inspection.
In dismissing Florence's civil rights suit against county officials, JusticeAnthony M. Kennedy's majority opinion deferred broadly to jail officials and said it would be unworkable to oblige them to search only those prisoners they reasonably suspected of concealing drugs or weapons. Citing the example of Oklahoma City bomberTimothy McVeigh,who was arrested for driving without a license plate, Kennedy noted that "people detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals."