This past April, the five conservative Supreme Court Justices gave jail officials the right to strip and search every person arrested and jailed, even if the alleged offense is trivial and there is no reason to suspect danger of any kind. The ruling, in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington, compounds the assault on human dignity committed by the Court in another 5-4 decision eleven years ago, in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, when it authorized a full custodial arrest for even trivial “fine-only” offenses like a temporarily unbuckled seat belt. Our right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures has once again been undermined by a narrow conservative majority concerned more with protecting public officials than with the rights of ordinary Americans.
Florence grew out of a mistake. On March 3, 2005, Albert Florence, an African-American businessman, his pregnant wife and their 4-year-old son, were in the family BMW, when a New Jersey state trooper pulled them over. Florence’s wife was driving; no reason for the stop appears in the record and no citation was ever issued. The trooper ordered Florence, the owner, out of the car. A computer check disclosed that an arrest warrant for civil contempt had once been issued against him for nonpayment of a fine but failed to note that the fine had been paid and the warrant withdrawn.
Florence had been stopped several times before, which he attributed to his being an African-American driving an expensive car. He therefore carried a certificate attesting to the cancellation of the warrant, which he showed to the trooper. Nevertheless, he was handcuffed, arrested and taken to the Burlington County jail. The jail authorities conceded that they had no suspicion of any wrongdoing by Florence apart from the fine. Yet he was still forced to strip, shower with a delousing agent, open his mouth for inspection, hold out his arms and lift his genitals, and turn around so the officer could examine his buttocks.
After six days without appearing before a magistrate as required by law, Florence was transferred to the Essex County jail. There he was again strip-searched, again without any indication that he had done anything wrong, only this time he was required to squat and cough, and to undergo close examination of his ears, nose, mouth, scalp, armpits, inner thighs and other parts of his body. The next day Florence was brought before a judge who, “appalled” at his treatment, ordered his immediate release. Florence sued the two counties and was joined in a class-action by others subjected to the same treatment.
What happened to him could happen to anyone. Had the mother of three at the center of Atwater—who was handcuffed and jailed after she and her children were found to have unbuckled their seatbelts temporarily—been arrested today, she could have also been subjected to a strip search. This is because state penal and traffic codes are stuffed with a vast array of such minor and often trivial offenses for which an arrest can be made wholly at the discretion of police. Among those who joined the class-action lawsuit filed by Florence were people who had been charged with having a noisy muffler, an inoperable headlight, a bald tire, high beams on and a faulty windshield wiper. Others were charged with ignoring a stop sign, improperly backing up, crossing a double line, and parking in a no-parking zone, and two were charged with improperly riding a bicycle and riding without an audible bell. All were stripped and searched.