Supreme Court Watch: Florence v. Burlington County
Today’s case is Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of Burlington County. To begin, we need to look at the Bill of Rights.
The Fourth Amendment states, in full:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Does this protect citizens against strip searches, when no crime has been committed or even alleged? Or may a county jail strip search someone detained on a minor traffic violation — even mistakenly — without suspicion of anything more serious going on?
Albert W. Florence of Mount Holly, New Jersey kept a 2003 document with him showing that he had paid a fine for a previous traffic offense, because he was convinced the police in some areas of New Jersey engage in racial profiling. In March of 2005, he was a passenger in his BMW, which was being driven by his wife. Their four-year-old son was in the back. A state trooper pulled them over, reportedly for speeding.
The trooper ran a records search, found a supposedly unpaid fine, and arrested Mr. Florence, despite being shown the document as evidence that the fine had, in fact, been paid. Mr. Florence spent eight days in jail in two counties (Essex and Burlington) before being released, with no charges; he was strip-searched twice during that period. He sued in federal court, alleging his Constitutional rights had been violated.
The reason for being taken into custody was the supposedly unpaid fine, which had, in fact, been paid. Even if it hadn’t been paid, failure to pay a traffic fine in New Jersey is not a crime. Being strip searched for something other than a crime is illegal in New Jersey,
… unless ‘there exists probable cause that a weapon, drug or evidence of a crime will be found.’ In order to sue state and local officials for monetary damages under the Federal Civil Rights Act, a person must allege a violation of his/her rights protected by the “Constitution and laws” of the United States.
Moreover, a state official is immune from such suits unless there is clearly established law that the search was unlawful.
A New Jersey federal judge, the Honorable Joseph Rodriguez, ruled in favor of Florence last year. Later, the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia heard the appeal, and found against him.
Police departments, correctional departments, various cities and counties, the American Bar Association, Attorneys General, and even a group of psychiatrists, have filed briefs in support of the Petitioner or the Respondents. See here for a listing.
In 1979, in Bell v. Wolfish, the Supreme Court found that it was within the bounds of the Constitution for a correctional institution to perform a body and cavity search on inmates, regardless for the reason for their incarceration; this is the basis for the Third Circuit ruling. There is also a contradictory history on this question:
The federal courts of appeal are divided over whether blanket policies requiring jailhouse strip-searches of people arrested for minor offenses violate the Fourth Amendment. Eight courts have ruled that such searches are proper only if there is a reasonable suspicion that the arrested person has weapons or contraband.
The more recent trend, from appeals courts in Atlanta, San Francisco and Philadelphia, is to allow searches no matter how minor the charge. Some potential examples cited by dissenting judges in those cases: violating a leash law, driving without a license, failing to pay child support.
- Does the Fourth Amendment here favor Mr. Florence?
- Do correctional institutions have the Constitutional power to perform body and cavity searches when there is no suspicion of any crime having been committed?
- Does the fact that his particular search was illegal under New Jersey law play into the qustion of its Constitutionality?
- If this level of privacy violation is to be permitted, what are the limits of the Fourth Amendment? In what sense, and under what circumstances, are Americans safe from “unreasonable searches and seizures”?
- In Supreme Court case, man says strip-search humiliated him (abcnews.go.com)
- Privacy vs. security: Justices to debate jail strip searches (cnn.com)
- Are Strip Searches Unconstitutional? (theroot.com)
- United States Supreme Court Grants Petition to Hear Constitutionality of Prison Strip Searches on Non-Criminal Offenses (prweb.com)
About dcpetterson (198 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson