In a contentious 5-4 decision, the Court held in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington that the search procedures employed by the county jail did not violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the court, which began by reciting the responsibilities correctional officials have to ensure the safety of themselves and the inmates. He framed the question as whether the Constitution prohibits jail personnel from requiring “a close visual inspection [of new prisoners] while undressed.”
The introductory paragraph also heavily emphasized that this involved a question of whether the Constitution mandated a rule, as well as the deference to be accorded correctional officers in determining what is required for jail security.
The underlying case involved Albert Florence, who was required to pay a fine in monthly installments as part of his sentence after a plea of guilty to charges for obstruction of justice and use of a deadly weapon. He lapsed in his payment and a bench warrant was issued. He then paid the fine less than a week later, but the warrant was not cleared from a statewide database.
Two years later, he was stopped by a state trooper who arrested him based on the outstanding warrant. After arrest, he was required to shower with a delousing agent while correctional officers checked him for scars, tattoos, and contraband.
Petitioner Freeman was released the next day. He later brought suit alleging a violation of his fourth and fourteenth amendment rights. His contention, as stated by the majority, was that the Constitution prohibited these correctional officers from requiring a strip search without reasonable suspicion that a particular inmate was concealing weapons, drugs, or other contraband.
After certification of a class of like plaintiffs and discovery, the district court granted petitioner’s motion for summary judgment. A divided panel of the Third Circuit reversed, holding that the jail’s procedure was not unconstitutional.
The majority noted the difficulty in safely administering a detention center – the particular jail Freeman was placed in admits more than 25 thousand inmates yearly. It also noted the extensive deference the Court’s past precedent accorded correctional officers. In Block v. Rutherford, for instance, the court had stated that, “in the absence of substantial evidence … that the officials have exaggerated their response to [safety] considerations[,] courts should ordinarily defer to their expert judgment.”
In a concurrence, joined by all of the majority except Justice Thomas, Justice Kennedy noted that there may be circumstances where a strip search would be unreasonable, particularly where the detainee is to be held outside of the general jail population without substantial contact with other detainees.
In a separate and brief concurrences, Justice Alito emphasized that their holding in this case was on the narrow factual pattern in which the arrestee is committed to the general population. And, quoting to Justice Frankfurter, Justice Roberts stated that “the Court is nonetheless wise to leave open the possibility of exceptions, to ensure that we ‘not embarrass the future.’”
Justice Breyer, who wrote the dissent and was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, framed the issue differently from the majority: “The case is limited to strip searches of those arrestees entering a jail’s general population … the searches here involves close observation of the private areas of a person’s body and for that reason constitute a far more serious invasion of the person’s privacy.”
“In my view,” continued Breyer, “such a search of an individual arrested for a minor offense that does not involve drugs or violence – say a traffic offense, a regulatory offense, an essentially civil matter, or any other such misdemeanor – is an ‘unreasonable search’ forbidden by the Fourth Amendment.”