WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Monday it will hear the case of a man who claims that strip searches in two New Jersey jails violated his constitutional rights.
Albert Florence was searched twice in seven days after he was arrested on a warrant for a traffic fine he had already paid. The justices will review an appeals court decision upholding the searches.
Most other federal courts have found routine strip searches to be unconstitutional, although more recent decisions have gone the other way.
Florence argues the jailhouse searches were unreasonable because he was being held for failure to pay a fine, which is not a crime in New Jersey.
Florence’s lawsuit over his treatment arose from his arrest in March 2005. A state trooper stopped the family SUV as Florence, his wife, April and 4-year-old child were headed to dinner with Florence’s mother-in-law.
His wife was driving, but Florence identified himself as the vehicle’s owner. The trooper ran a records check and found an outstanding warrant for an unpaid fine. Florence had been stopped several times before, and he carried a letter to the effect that the fine, for fleeing a traffic stop several years earlier, had been paid.
Despite the letter, the trooper handcuffed Florence and drove him to the Burlington County Jail in southern New Jersey. At the time, the State Police were operating under a court order, spawned by allegations of past racial discrimination, that provided federal monitors to assess State Police stops of minority drivers. But the propriety of the stop is not at issue, and Florence, who is African American, is not alleging racial discrimination.
The first strip search took place in Burlington. Florence was made to undress and submit to a second search when he was transferred to a jail in Newark six days later.
The next day, a judge freed Florence and dismissed all charges. The fine had been paid, as Florence had insisted.
A federal judge agreed with Florence that the searches were improper, but the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia said it is reasonable to search everyone being jailed, even without suspicion that a person may be concealing a weapon or drugs. Since 2008 — and in the first appellate rulings on the issue since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — appeals courts in Atlanta and San Francisco decided that authorities’ need to maintain security justified a wide-ranging search policy, no matter the reason for someone’s detention.
Those rulings stand in sharp contrast to a series of decisions over 30 years that held that strip searches without suspicion violated the Constitution.
The appeals court decisions flow from a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that upheld a blanket policy of conducting body cavity searches of prisoners who had had contact with visitors on the basis that the interaction with outsiders created the possibility that some prisoners got hold of something they shouldn’t have.
The case will be argued in the fall.
The case is Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, 10-945.