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Florence v. Bd. of Chosen Freeholders - 566 U.S. 318, 132 S. Ct. 1510 (2012)

Rule:

Maintaining safety and order at jails and prisons requires the expertise of correctional officials, who must have substantial discretion to devise reasonable solutions to the problems they face. The United States Supreme Court has confirmed the importance of deference to correctional officials and explained that a regulation impinging on an inmate's constitutional rights must be upheld if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.

Facts:

Petitioner Albert Florence was arrested during a traffic stop by a New Jersey state trooper who checked a statewide computer database and found an outstanding  bench warrant issued after Florence failed to appear. He was initially detained in the county detention center and later, in the county correctional facility. Once it was determined that the fine, for which he had been ordered to appear, had been paid, Florence was released.

At the first jail, Florence, like every incoming detainee, had to shower with a delousing agent and was checked for scars, marks, gang tattoos, and contraband as he disrobed. Petitioner claims that he also had to open his mouth, lift his tongue, hold out his arms, turn around, and lift his genitals. At the second jail, Florence, like other arriving detainees, had to remove his clothing while an officer looked for body markings, wounds, and contraband; had an officer look at his ears, nose, mouth, hair, scalp, fingers, hands, armpits, and other body openings; had a mandatory shower; and had his clothes examined. Petitioner claims that he was also required to lift his genitals, turn around, and cough while squatting. He filed a 42 U. S. C. § 1983 action in the federal district court against the government entities that ran the jails and other defendants, alleging Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations, and arguing that persons arrested for minor offenses cannot be subjected to invasive searches unless prison officials have reason to suspect concealment of weapons, drugs, or other contraband. The district court granted him summary judgment, ruling that “strip-searching” nonindictable offenders without reasonable suspicion violates the Fourth Amendment. On appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit , the summary judgment was reversed. Petitioner sought further review by the United States Supreme Court.

Issue:

Did the strip-searching of nonindictable offenders (NIO) without reasonable suspicion violate the Fourth Amendment?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The Court held that deference must be given to jail officials unless substantial evidence showed their response to the situation was exaggerated. Concerns about gang members provided a reasonable basis to justify a visual inspection for signs of gang affiliation during intake. Detecting contraband concealed by new detainees was a most serious responsibility. The seriousness of an offense was a poor predictor of who had contraband, and it would be difficult in practice to determine whether individual detainees fell within the proposed NIO exemption. Those offenders could be put at greater risk from more contraband being brought in, a substantial reason not to mandate an exception for NIOs or for those not charged with an offense involving a weapon or drugs as a matter of constitutional law. The officers conducting an initial search often had no access to criminal history records, as the detainee's rap sheet did not reflect his previous arrest for possession of a deadly weapon. The search procedures to which Florence was subjected struck a reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the jail's needs. The Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments did not require adoption of an exemption for NIOs.

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