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High court upholds strip searches for minor offenses

High court also protects testimony before grand jury

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled by a 5-to-4 vote Monday that officials may strip-search people arrested for any offense, however minor, before admitting them to jails, even if the officials have no reason to suspect the presence of contraband.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, joined by the court’s conservative wing, wrote that courts are in no position to second-guess the judgments of correctional officials who must consider not only the possibility of smuggled weapons and drugs but also public health and information about gang affiliations.

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About 13 million people are admitted each year to the nation’s jails, Kennedy wrote.

Under Monday’s ruling, he wrote, “every detainee who will be admitted to the general population may be required to undergo a close visual inspection while undressed.’’

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the four dissenters, said strip searches are “a serious affront to human dignity and to individual privacy’’ and should be used only when there was good reason to do so.

The decision endorses a more recent trend, from appeals courts in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, in allowing searches no matter how minor the charge. Some potential examples cited by dissenting judges in the lower courts and by Breyer on Monday included violating a leash law, driving without a license, and failing to pay child support.

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

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Florence was held for a week in jails in two counties, and he was strip-searched twice. There is some dispute about the details but general agreement that he was made to stand naked in front of a guard who required him to move intimate parts of his body. The guards did not touch him.

“Turn around,’’ Florence, in an interview last year, recalled being told by jail officials. “Squat and cough. Spread your cheeks.’’

“I consider myself a man’s man,’’ said Florence, a finance executive for a car dealership. “Six-three. Big guy. It was humiliating. It made me feel less than a man.’’

The federal courts of appeal were divided over whether blanket policies requiring jailhouse strip searches of people arrested for minor offenses violate the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches. At least seven rulings said that such searches were proper only if there was a reasonable suspicion that the arrested person had weapons or contraband.

Kennedy said the most relevant precedent was Bell v. Wolfish, which was decided by a 5-4 vote in 1979. It allowed strip searches of people held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York after “contact visits’’ with outsiders.

As in the Bell case, Kennedy wrote, “the undoubted security imperatives involved in jail supervision override the assertion that some detainees must be exempt from the more invasive search procedures at issue absent reasonable suspicion of a concealed weapon or other contraband.’’

The majority and dissenting opinions drew differing conclusions from the available statistics and anecdotes about the amount of contraband introduced into jails and how much strip searches add to pat-downs and metal detectors.

“It is not surprising that correctional officials have sought to perform thorough searches at intake for disease, gang affiliation, and contraband,’’ Kennedy wrote. “Jails are often crowded, unsanitary, and dangerous places.’’

“There is a substantial interest,’’ he added, “in preventing any new inmate, either of his own will or as a result of coercion, from putting all who live or work at these institutions at even greater risk when he is admitted to the general population.’’

In other action Monday:

■ The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that witnesses who lie to a grand jury are protected from civil lawsuits, giving them the same protection that witnesses get at trials.

The justices ruled against Charles Rehberg, an accountant who was indicted three times involving charges that he harassed doctors affiliated with a south Georgia hospital system.

After the third indictment was dismissed even before a trial, Rehberg sued local prosecutors and their investigator, James Paulk. Rehberg said that he was placed under investigation because of the hospital’s political connections and that Paulk’s false grand jury testimony led to the indictments.

But Justice Samuel Alito said Rehberg’s lawsuit should not go forward. Witnesses are protected from civil lawsuits over what they say in trial testimony. “Grand jury witnesses should enjoy the same immunity as witnesses at trial,’’ Alito said.

■ The justices agreed to review a deportation case where an immigrant is being sent back to Jamaica for being caught with 1.3 grams of marijuana. Adrian Moncrieffe pleaded guilty in Georgia to the state crime of possession with intent to distribute. Immigration officials say that equals an aggravated felony conviction under the federal Controlled Substance Act, which makes him deportable. Moncrieffe lost appeals of that decision in the lower courts.

■ The court also said it would referee a fight between the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and the federal government over controlled flooding in the Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area from 1993 to 2000. A federal judge ordered the government to pay Arkansas $5.6 million for the timber that was destroyed during the flooding, but that was overturned by the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

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