You Can Get Strip Searched for an Unpaid Parking Ticket: Thanks, U.S. Supreme Court

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Bad news if you don't like getting dehumanized: The U.S. Supreme Court just ruled 5-4 to OK strip searches for any offense.

What this means: if you get booked for an offense as minor as an unpaid parking ticket, you might have to bare all for corrections officers before being admitted to jail.

Yep, you read that right. Something as minor as an unpaid parking ticket can require that you suffer an immense indignity -- including cavity searches -- without having been convicted of any crime.

And jail officials don't even have to suspect that you're carrying contraband.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, said that "every detainee who will be admitted to the general population may be required to undergo a close visual inspection while undressed" and that this does not violate Fourth Amendment prohibitions against illegal searches and seizure.

But the dissenting opinion decried the decision as disproportionately invasive.

Richard D. Emery -- the lawyer who handled two landmark lawsuits against NYC's strip search policies, totaling $76 million in settlements -- tells Runnin' Scared: "It gives jails carte blanche, even on the most minor offenses."

Emery emphasizes that today's decision applies even to crimes such as driving without a license or having an open container in public.

Indeed, the incident that prompted today's decision seems like something out of a dystopic sci-fi novel. The Times sums it up as follows:

"The Supreme Court case arose from the arrest of Albert W. Florence in New Jersey in 2005. Mr. Florence was in the passenger seat of his BMW when a state trooper pulled his wife, April, over for speeding. A records search revealed an outstanding warrant based on an unpaid fine. (The information was wrong; the fine had been paid.) "

Florence got held in jail for a week and was twice subjected to strip searches. He was told to "squat and cough" and to spread his cheeks. Again, all this was over a parking ticket which had actually been paid. But now, it's the law of the land: Emery explains that the ruling reps the Court's interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. What this means is that the only thing that could prevent blanket strip searches would be state-level policy making.

Jonathan Moore, a veteran civil rights lawyer in New York, feels that part of the ruling, however, might protect against unreasonable searches, since it differentiates between pre-trial detainees -- who likely don't need to be searched -- and inmates headed for a jail's general population.

Today's news comes shortly after renewed criticism of the NYPD's strip search techniques -- many have complained that the department isn't following its own guidelines and still wantonly searches prisoners.

Brandon Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia specializing in federal criminal law, says that "Prison facilities are allowed to do searches to keep their facilities safe and they have to balance security concerns with the privacy rights of inmates."

But, the "language about how that balance has to be made is somewhat vague," he says.

Check back to Runnin' Scared for updates.

Follow Victoria Bekiempis @vicbekiempis.


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