In his note for the court’s justices, which currently has a conservative majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said on Monday that jail search procedures “struck a reasonable balance” between inmate privacy and the needs of the institution.
By a 5-4 vote, the justices upheld a ruling by a US appeals court based in Philadelphia that it was reasonable to search everyone entering a jail, even without a suspicion of any crime having been committed.
“Jails are often crowded, unsanitary and dangerous places,” Justice Kennedy wrote for the court, adding, “There is a substantial interest in preventing any new inmate, either of his own will or as a result of coercion, from putting all who live or work at these institutions at even greater risk when he is admitted to the general population.”
One of the court’s liberals, Justice Stephen Breyer, said in a dissenting opinion that strip searches improperly “subject those arrested for minor offenses to serious invasions of their personal privacy.” Breyer argued that jailers should have a reasonable suspicion someone may be hiding something before conducting a strip search.
The ruling came in response to a challenge by a New Jersey man, Albert W. Florence, who claimed in a lawsuit that he was strip-searched twice during his week behind bars in two New Jersey counties, Burlington and Essex.
Florence was jailed following his arrest for failing to pay a years-old fine, which in reality he had in fact already paid. His lawsuit noted that even if the warrant had been valid, failure to pay a fine is not a crime in the state of New Jersey.
The ruling was a victory for the President Barack Obama’s administration, which pushed for a federally-binding rule allowing strip-searches of all those entering the general jail population, even those arrested on minor offenses.
The ruling could impact nearly 14 million Americans who are jailed every year, including an estimated 700, 000 people who are behind bars for minor offences.