Block v. Rutherford (1984)
. Pretrial detainees in the Los Angeles County jail sued to require jailers to allow them to remain during shakedown searches of their cells; the sheriff objected that this would compromise safety and allow inmates to see the various hiding places the deputies searched. Although the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the inmates, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and ordered the suit dismissed.
Said the court, "We have emphasized that we are unwilling to substitute our judgment on these difficult and sensitive matters of institutional administration and security for that of the persons who are actually charged with and trained in the running of such facilities. We reaffirm that proper deference to the informed discretion of prison officials demands that they, and not the courts, make the difficult judgments which reconcile conflicting claims affecting the security of the institution, the welfare of the prison staff, and the property rights of the detainees."
Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders
The latest jail-search case from the Supreme Court (in 2012) applies the reasoning and rulings of the previous cases to the issue of strip searching arrestees prior to placement into the general jail population, when the arrest offense is comparatively minor and there is no reason to suspect that the arrestee is concealing weapons or contraband or is afflicted with a communicable disease.
Albert Florence had been ordered to pay a fine in connection with a New Jersey conviction. After he failed to make timely payment, the court issued a bench warrant for his arrest. The next week, Florence paid the balance of the fine, but the warrant was inadvertently left in the records system. When Florence was stopped for a traffic violation two years later, the trooper arrested him on the outstanding warrant.
At intake in both the jail where Florence was booked and a county detention facility to which he was later transferred, he was required to remove his clothes, take a shower under observation, and subject his body cavities to visual observation before being placed into the general population. No foreign objects were found, and Florence was released as soon as it was confirmed that the arrest warrant should have been recalled.
Florence then sued, claiming a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights based on the fact that his arrest was for a minor offense and there were no suspicions to justify a strip search. Although the federal district court ruled in Florence's favor, this ruling was reversed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Florence then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review, renewing his argument that custodial officers should not be allowed to strip search inmates arrested on minor charges, unless there were reasons to believe a search would disclose concealed weapons or contraband.
The Supreme Court rejected Florence's argument and his lawsuit. The court pointed out the practical reasons for allowing jailers to check for gang tattoos and signs of injury or disease, and to ensure that no weapon or contraband was being smuggled into the institution. The court summarized its ruling as follows:
"It is not surprising that correctional officials have sought to perform thorough searches at intake for disease, gang affiliation, and contraband. Jails are often crowded, unsanitary, and dangerous places. There is a substantial interest in preventing any new inmate from putting all who live and work at these institutions at even greater risk when he is admitted to the general population. People detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals. The search procedures here struck a reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the needs of the institution."
Statutory Restrictions May Apply
In Florence, the court noted that although the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit intake strip searches before an arrestee is admitted to the general population, "Individual jurisdictions can of course choose to impose more restrictive standards through statutes." Numerous states have done so (including California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Tennessee, and Washington). Check with local advisors regarding application of the Florence ruling in your jurisdiction.
Devallis Rutledge is a former police officer and veteran prosecutor who currently serves as special counsel to the Los Angeles County district attorney. He is the author of 12 books, including "Investigative Constitutional Law."