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Are Fourth Amendment Rights Under Siege?

A recent 5-4 Supreme Court decision makes it legal for prison staff to strip-search anyone entering the facility. Many view this as a significant reduction of fourth-amendment rights that protect Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures. This ruling settled a New Jersey case, Florence v. County of Burlington. The plaintiff, Albert W. Florence, was forced to submit to strip searches, including exposure of body cavities, after he was arrested for an unpaid fine.

It later turned out that his arrest and incarceration was a mistake; he had already paid the fine. Even if he had not paid the fine, failure to do so is not a criminal offense in the state of New Jersey.

Florence stated that he was required to open his mouth, lift his tongue, hold out his arms, and lift his genitals. When he was moved to a second facility, he went through the same process again. And Florence is not the only one who has endured this type of invasive scrutiny while in the criminal justice system. Individuals whose "crimes" included walking a dog without a leash, driving a car with an expired license and for peaceful protesting have been subjected to strip searches.

The district court had previously ruled in Albert Florence's favor, but was reversed by the Third Circuit. The Supreme Court upheld that decision.

The dissent, written by Justice Breyer, stated that invasive searches of individuals arrested for minor offenses and non-violent, white collar crimes, were unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, unless prison authorities have reasonable suspicion that the person has drugs or other contraband on his or her person.

Does this decision mean that the rights of criminal defendants and people convicted of crimes are under siege?  Time will tell.  But it is worth revisiting the words of the Forth Amendment in the meantime:

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. --Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Source: Huffington Post, "Strip Search Nation," by David Bromwich, Apr. 11, 2012.

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