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Thursday
Oct132011

Supreme Court Struggles with Case on Prison Strip Searches

Comstock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Supreme Court justices grappled Wednesday with the use of strip searches by prison officials for newly admitted inmates charged with minor crimes.

At issue is the case of Albert Florence, a New Jersey man who was mistakenly arrested, hauled to two different jails, stripped searched and released six days later after all charges were dropped.

Florence is suing the jails that detained him, arguing that his constitutional rights were violated when he was subjected to strip searching without a reasonable suspicion that he was bringing contraband into the jail.  He argues that detainees that are placed in the general prison population for minor offenses should not be subject to such an invasion of privacy.

During an hour-long discussion, the justices seemed to struggle with drawing a line between an inmate’s privacy rights and the interest prisons have to keep contraband out of the facilities.

Thomas C. Goldstein, a lawyer for Florence, said his client was directed at one jail to remove all his clothing, open his mouth, lift his tongue, hold out his arms, turn around and lift his genitals.  Goldstein called it an intrusion on his client’s “individual dignity” and said prison officials should only conduct such searches when they believe the inmate could be carrying contraband.

But Justice Anthony Kennedy wondered how prison officials could determine such a suspicion.

“It seems to me,” Kennedy said, “that you risk compromising … individual dignity if you say we have reasonable suspicion as to you, but not as to you. … You are setting the detainee up for a classification that may be questioned at the time and will be seen as an affront based on the person’s race, based on what he said or she said to the officers coming in.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked if corrections officers would have to do research on intake into whether the inmate was dangerous.  Justice Kennedy was also concerned that some inmates who were at a jail for minor offenses might, in fact, appreciate the security of an “institution where everyone has been searched.”

Carter G. Phillips argued on behalf of the jails that held Florence.  He urged the Court to show deference to the “good faith judgment of our jailers.”

Justice Stephen Breyer asked Phillips about the fact that there are not a lot of statistics showing that minor offenders are carrying contraband into the jails.  Phillips said that it could mean that the fear of a search served as a deterrent.

The Obama administration is siding with the prisons in the case and urging the court to allow a blanket policy to strip search all arrestees set to enter the general prison population.

“When you have a rule that treats everyone the same,” Justice Department lawyer Nicole A. Saharsky argued, “you don’t have folks that are singled out.  You don’t have any security gaps.”

The case should be decided in the next several months.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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