By: Johnathan Lamantia
Having a bad day?
Let me tell you about someone who really had a bad day. In 2005 Albert Florence and his family were traveling to his mother’s home. The family’s trip was interrupted when a New Jersey state trooper pulled them over. It was supposed to be a routine traffic stop. As is typically the case in such situations, the trooper checked Florence’s license against a criminal data-base. The search indicated that Florence had a warrant out for is arrest for not paying a fine. He was promptly arrested.
Florence was eventually released from custody after the state realized that he had in fact paid the fine. However, in the intervening time, he was strip-searched a staggering two times. For your clarity, I’ll be explicit. Florence was compelled expose all of himself and then asked to further expose himself by shifting his genitals about and squatting etc. All this, because he was thought to have not paid a fine.
Think of that the next time you complain about a traffic ticket.
Anyway, following his ordeal, Florence filed suit in district court alleging that his right to be free from unreasonable searches, protected by both the fourth and fourteenth amendments. He won his case at the district level; however, the state appealed, and the decision was reversed at the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The US Supreme Court, just several weeks ago, affirmed.
That’s right, you’re eyes aren’t fooling you. They agreed with the Third Circuit; prisoners, even those who are merely suspected of committing a minor crime, can be subject to such invasive searches.
Justice Kennedy penned the decision for the majority. Essentially, he argued that corrections officials must be given discretion to run their jails in accordance with their expertise. The majority supports this with numerous references to precedent. They make the argument that prisons are hotbeds of violence and the possibility of prisoners smuggling contraband in on their persons is sufficient to generate enough reasonable suspicion that corrections officials are warranted in performing a strip- search.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer takes issue with this element of their thesis: it was not reasonable to search Florence as all searches he had been subject prior to being strip-searched had revealed no contraband. In other words, it was clear that he had nothing on his person; there was not suspicion to strip.
I’ll be honest; I have a great deal of difficulty in forming a stance on this case. Justice Kennedy seems to be correct in saying that corrections officers and prison officials have a responsibility to protect themselves and others against harm which could result from hidden contraband. Plus, in prisons which have gang-related issues, it certainly makes sense to perform a strip search in order to make sure the new inmate doesn’t have any gang-inspired tattoos which could spark tension.
But, in the end, I’m forced to agree with Justice Breyer. Correction officials should have gathered all the information they needed to know about Florence from the numerous searches he underwent leading up to the strip searches.
Obviously, this is the kind of stuff most of us have nightmares about. But don’t think that your head is the only place in which your privacy could be violated.
Florence’s story is not simply a story about searches in prisons but rather of privacy in general—because, you don’t have to be stripped naked and asked to augment your genitals to have your privacy violated.
We live in a society which has consistently sacrificed privacy as a “luxury.”
Think about a seemingly innocuous example? How many times per day do you think your image is captured on camera? According to the Daily Kos, the answer is around 200. Maybe you don’t mind, but I certainly do. I don’t appreciate a total stranger watching my every move.
You might respond to me by arguing that showing up for a few seconds on a screen does me no harm. But that’s
not my point. What really bothers me is that fact that we just take whatever slight lapse in privacy which comes along. These lapses add up quickly.
Did you know that there are now miniature, stealth drones with the ability to carry high powered cameras? In ten years we will be talking about a law enforcement agency skipping the warrant process and deploying one of these devices, and I’m sure someone will argue it was necessary for “public safety.” The same line of reasoning was used to justify the National Security Administration’s wiretapping program.
It’s been used in travel for years too. It used to be that you could simply walk through a metal detector, no problem. But now you probably wouldn’t be surprised if asked to remove a piece, maybe even more, of your clothing. Here’s something disturbing, in researching the topic of prison searches, I came across a picture. Not a picture of a corrections office searching an inmate but a TSA agent looking down the pants of a young man.
This should shock you? But I don’t hear people talking about ways to change policy.
Even in our schools we have seen a decrease in privacy standards. In recent years, the Supreme Court has ruled that it is constitutional for a school official to perform near strip-searches on children suspected of harboring something as “dangerous” as Advil in her bra.
Do we really want to be the society in which we give our privacy away simply because someone tells us it is in our “best interest?”
Look, I don’t live in a fantasy world. Of course there are serious threats out there. I’m not suggesting that we should simply ignore such threats, but we cannot continue to yield our privacy especially when there are much less invasive ways of detecting dangerous materials such as bomb drug sniffing dogs and high power metal/chemical detectors.
When a man suspected of not paying a fine can be strip-searched two times and the Supreme Court says that okay and there’s no major public outcry, you know something is seriously wrong.