When Are Strip Searches Constitutional?

December 9, 2009

Once upon a time every one who got arrested and sent to the Nassau County Jail got strip searched.  In 1999 a Federal Judge put a halt to this practice, ruling that “the Fourth Amendment prohibits jail officials from performing such searches on every person sent to the jail, particularly those arrested on a misdemeanor or minor charge like a traffic violation, and those who cannot be reasonably suspected of carrying a concealed weapon or drugs.”

Since that time, this Long Island jail has changed its ways, but the County is dealing with the consequences.  This week the County is defending a class action lawsuit involving 17,700 people whose rights were violated before this practice ceased. The County has already paid out about $350,000 in damages to other plaintiffs, but it looks like the final bill will be much higher.

Although the Supreme Court has not ruled on the issue, it is pretty well settled law that new arrestees charged with minor crimes may not be subject to a strip search absent reasonable suspicion that the arrestee is concealing weapons or other contraband.

Last summer a Long Island jury found just such a strip search justifiable, in what many saw as a surprising verdict.

Strip searches are permissible for those arrestees charged with more serious crimes, for inmates already convicted of crimes, and those receiving contact visits. This site contains much more detail on the current law.

The Supreme Court did rule this summer that Arizona school officials violated a 13 year old girl’s constitutional rights by subjecting her to a strip search. The school suspected her of hiding ibuprofen in her underwear. The court ruled 8 to 1 that such an intrusive search without the threat of a clear danger to other students violated the Constitution’s protections against unreasonable search or seizure.

A recent incident in Boston prompted a lawsuit against a hospital that routinely strip searched psychiatric patients entering the emergency room. The hospital no longer conducts these strip searches.

All of this publicity and the threat of lawsuits doesn’t seem to have slowed the use of strip searches. See this post for more on current trends.  Just last week a Federal jury found that a state police officer violated a Phoenix exotic dancer’s Fourth Amendment constitutional rights by subjecting her to a strip search. The officer had a warrant to search the nightclub, but not the employees. The money damages awarded were nominal.

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