Michigan is currently one of four states spending more on prisons and corrections than on education. Now, thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Michigan’s return on investment in those incarcerated will increase, by means of greater access to detainee’s physiques. In a 5-4 decision earlier this week, the Supreme Court upheld jailer’s rights to subject any incoming detainees to full body cavity strip searches without probable cause. The strip searches, legitimized without warranted suspicions, are a violation of fourth amendment rights and detainees’ dignity, and have proven to be unnecessary to keep contraband out of prison systems.
The plaintiff in the case, Albert Florence of New Jersey, was pulled over while en route to a family celebration. Police saw a warrant was out for his arrest for an unpaid traffic ticket. Florence had in fact already paid the fine and even carried proof that the warrant had been rescinded, but he was arrested nonetheless.
Florence had not been convicted of any crime at the time of the incident, nor was there reason to suspect he was hiding any contraband. Yet, he was then taken to county jail where the jailers conducted a cavity search. He was transferred to another jail, where he was subject to a second strip search. Florence’s charges were eventually dropped, and he then filed suit against the jails for violation of his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizure.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the swing vote between the court’s four conservative and four liberal justices, cast his vote to uphold correctional officials’ right to subject any detainee to strip searches without probable cause.
In Kennedy’s written opinion, he argued that the randomness of strip searches — regardless of reasonable suspicion — was used as an effective deterrent for inmates or detainees against smuggling contraband into prisons. Limiting strip searches to only criminals convicted of violent or drug related crimes would give criminals a loophole to bring weapons or drugs into prisons.
Kennedy also argues that the seriousness of an offense is a poor indicator of whether a detainee is hiding contraband. Therefore, he says, requiring probable cause shouldn’t restrict strip searches. This logic is paranoid and further criminalizes people who should be working toward rehabilitation.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the dissenting opinion. He argued that in the records of a county jail, out of 75,000 inmates that were strip searched, three were hiding contraband detectable only through a strip search. Of those three detainees, all of them had drug or felony history that would have given probable cause for the use of a strip search.
The Supreme Court was wrong in its decision to uphold strip searches without probable cause. Cavity searches should be limited only to people rightly suspected of carrying contraband. The safety of the prisons can still be assure as records continue to show that jailers almost always have probable cause for detainees more likely to smuggle drugs. Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights must be taken seriously, especially in an increasingly violent and crowded corrections system.