Albert Florence thought he was going out to dinner with his wife and kids to celebrate the purchase of their new home one evening in 2005 when he was pulled over by New Jersey police officers and arrested on a warrant for an unpaid traffic ticket. Florence had paid the fine two years before, but the warrant had never been removed from the courts’ computer systems. Instead of a celebratory dinner, Florence found himself in a humiliating six day ordeal in which he was held in county jails in Essex and Burlington counties in New Jersey while the courts sorted out the faulty record-keeping that led to his mistaken arrest. Adding to his horrible experience, Florence was strip searched at both jails. The Supreme Court of the United States heard oral argument today in the case Florence v. Burlington County, 10-945, in which Florence argues that the strip searches were unconstitutional.
In 1979, the high court held in Bell v. Wolfish that it was constitutional for jails to strip search every inmate after contact with a visitor. Attorneys for Florence argue that the issues are different when it comes to someone like Florence, who was arrested on sight by police for a minor ticketable offense and there is little risk that he’d be trying to smuggle contraband into the jail. They argue that it was unreasonable to strip search Florence in the absence of any reasonable suspicion that he was carrying concealed drugs or weapons.
The lower courts are divided on this question with the 9th and 11th Circuits siding with jails’ unconditional right to strip search all arrestees without regard to the presence of reasonable suspicion, and seven other circuit courts favoring a requirement that strip searches be supported by a reasonable basis to believe the arrestee is smuggling contraband. In Florence’s case, the 3rd Circuit sided with the jails.
Supreme Court rockstar Carter Phillips represents the jails. Susan Chana Lask represents Florence.
Strip search litigation has received a lot of attention here in Chicago in the past few years. In 2010, Cook County reached a $55.3 million settlement with detainees who were unnecessarily strip searched. In January 2011, the County agreed to pay another $4.2 million to compensate people who were strip searched after a judge had already dismissed their cases and found that they should be released.