High court oversteps privacy
Being arrested can land you in jail, and that can mean more than just waiting to make bail. Jailers can have you subjected to a strip search even if you’re being held on a minor traffic violation, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday. If that doesn’t sound creepy it should.
In a 5-4 decision, conservative jurists were joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion.
Security and privacy are both constitutionally based conservative values. But more and more, security trumps privacy. In this instance, the result is an odious decision.
Justice Kennedy wrote that jail employees should be able “to perform thorough searches at intake for disease, gang affiliation and contraband.”
Unfortunately, that includes citizens arrested on minor violations. As Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, strip searches are “inherently harmful, humiliating, and degrading,” and there ought to be reasonable suspicion that a person poses a danger before being subjected to them.
“The harm to privacy interests would seem particularly acute where the person searched may well have no expectation of being subject to such a search, say, because she had simply received a traffic ticket for failing to buckle a seat belt, because he had not previously paid a civil fine, or because she had been arrested for a minor trespass,” Justice Breyer wrote.
In the case in question, a New Jersey man was picked up mistakenly on charges of failing to pay a court fine. He was carried off in handcuffs before his wife and children, held for seven days in jail and strip-searched — twice.
Two justices who ruled with the majority — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. — noted that the ruling applies only to those who are admitted to the general jail population. An exception could be made to those held on minor charges and kept separately.
But until that “could” becomes “shall,” the matter is up to the discretion of a jailer. Unlucky citizens can only hope that jailers and arresting officers have better judgment than was demonstrated in this case, and by this ruling.
People who have been arrested and detained pending trial, aren’t in the same category as those who have been found guilty and are heading to prison.
Reasonable security measures — patdowns and metal detectors — are acceptable. But a strip search is beyond routine.
Or should be.