High court to look at routine strip searches in jail

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Six and a half years after a family outing turned into a weeklong nightmare behind bars, Albert Florence is getting a Supreme Court hearing on his claim that authorities violated his constitutional rights when they twice made him submit to strip searches in jail.

The justices were to hear arguments Wednesday in a case they could use to rule on whether jails routinely may strip search people who have been arrested, no matter the reason.

Mr. Florence, 36, was arrested based on a warrant for a traffic fine he already had paid. But even if the warrant had been valid, Mr. Florence said he should not have been treated like someone who could be hiding a weapon or drugs.

Taking time off from his job as finance manager at a New Jersey car dealership, he plans to be in the courtroom for the arguments.

“It’s important not only for my own personal reasons, but for a million-plus reasons,” Mr. Florence said in an interview. “It’s a huge case in terms of civil rights, to not have your privacy invaded.”

Albert Florence (right), pictured at his home in Bordentown, N.J., on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, with lawyer Susan Chana Lask, claims that strip searches in two county jails violated his constitutional rights. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case Wednesday. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

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Albert Florence (right), pictured at his home in Bordentown, N.J., on Tuesday, ... more >

On the other side, the jails, backed by the Obama administration, say people in jail have little, if any, expectation of privacy. The searches promote safety and protect inmates and guards, the jails said. The Essex County Jail, one of the two facilities where Mr. Florence was forced to undress and shower in front of guards, calls itself “one of the most dangerous jails in New Jersey.”

Federal appeals courts have been split over the propriety of routine strip searches in jails, although recent decisions have tended to uphold the searches.

Mr. Florence described the mounting helplessness he felt when a state trooper stopped the family’s BMW sport utility vehicle on a New Jersey highway in March 2005. His wife, April, was seven months pregnant with their second child and driving. Their 4-year-old son was in the back seat.

Mr. Florence identified himself as the vehicle’s owner, and the trooper, checking records, found an outstanding warrant for an unpaid fine. Mr. Florence, who is black, had been stopped several times before, and he carried a letter to the effect that the fine — for fleeing a traffic stop several years earlier — had been paid.

His protest was in vain, however, and the trooper handcuffed him and hauled him off to jail. At the time, the state police were operating under a court order, spawned by allegations of past racial discrimination, that provided federal monitors to assess state police stops of minority drivers. But the propriety of the stop is not at issue, and Mr. Florence is not alleging racial discrimination.

The family was headed to the home of Mr. Florence’s mother-in-law for a dinner to celebrate their purchase of a home. Instead, Mr. Florence was headed to jail. Though he hadn’t cried since he was a child, “I cried that night,” Mr. Florence said.

The first strip search took place in the Burlington County Jail in southern New Jersey. Six days later, Mr. Florence had not received a hearing and remained in custody. Transferred to the Essex County Jail in Newark, he was strip-searched again.

The next day a judge freed Mr. Florence and dismissed all charges. The fine had been paid, as Mr. Florence had insisted.

The case could turn on the court’s reading of its own decision in 1979 that upheld a blanket policy of conducting body cavity searches of prisoners who had had contact with visitors. The court’s reasoning then was that the interaction with outsiders created the possibility that some prisoners got hold of something they shouldn’t have.

But that ruling depended on suspicion, while the searches of Mr. Florence did not.

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