Monday, April 9, 2012

Our Crappy Supreme Court, Day 4 - Strip-Search Anyone at Any Time Edition

Get ready to bend over and spread 'em, everybody! (Source.)

Today, we come to perhaps the most ridiculous recent case decided by the Supreme Court - a ruling handed down by the Court just a few days ago. This is actually the case that inspired me to write this miniseries of posts on the Supreme Court. I definitely support the ACA, but it's this case that really made my blood boil and got me to thinking about how the Supreme Court has begun to endanger American democracy rather than protect it.

The case in question:

Florence v. County of Burlington (2012)

In deciding this case just a few days ago (again by a 5-4 party-line vote), the Supreme Court declared that officials may strip-search individuals who have been arrested for any crime before admitting the individuals to jail, even if there is no reason to suspect that the individual is carrying contraband. The 5 conservative justices stopped short of allowing the police to anal probe anyone and everyone, but anyone and everyone could be made to strip naked, bend over, and spread their butt cheeks wide in front of several police officers.

See NPR's coverage for a summary of the case. Here's a summary of each side's arguments:
Upon entering the jail [after being wrongly detained], [Albert Florence] was ordered to take a delousing shower, then inspected by a guard who was about "an arm's distance" away and instructed Florence to squat, cough and lift up his genitals. [Note: Florence was actually forced to do this twice - a second time when he was transferred to a different jail, in case he'd somehow managed to hide contraband under his testicles while at the first jail.]
Florence subsequently sued, contending that automatically strip-searching a person who is arrested for a minor offense violates the Constitution's ban on unreasonable searches.
But on Monday, the Supreme Court disagreed by a 5-4 vote. Writing for the court's conservative wing, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that jails are "often crowded, unsanitary, and dangerous places," and that, therefore, the courts must defer to the judgment of correctional officials in order to prevent new inmates from putting lives at risk with weapons or contraband that they may "carry in on their bodies."
The dissenters, led by Justice Stephen Breyer, argued that when a detainee is brought in on a minor charge that involves neither violence nor drugs, correctional officials should have to cite some reason to justify a strip search, as opposed to a less invasive screening with a metal detector or even an inspection of a detainee in his or her underwear. There are some 700,000 arrests for such minor offenses each year, and most of those arrested are brought before a judge and released pending resolution of their case. But an undetermined number have found themselves behind bars because there is no judge on duty, because of a bureaucratic snafu, or an error — as in this case.
Breyer noted that people have been detained and strip-searched for offenses as minor as driving with an inoperable headlight, having outstanding parking tickets, violating a dog leash law, and riding a bike without an audible bell. None of these people could have anticipated being arrested, he said, and none would likely have hidden weapons inside their body cavities.
But Kennedy said that given the number of total arrests each year — 13 million — it would be unworkable for correctional officials to exempt one class of prisoner from strip searches. Indeed, he added, even people detained for minor offenses can turn out to be "the most devious and dangerous criminals."
Or, you can watch the Daily Show's interview with Florence's lawyer to get the back story, if you prefer:

It's hard to see how 5 supposedly intelligent people came to the conclusion that allowing the police to strip-search anyone who's been arrested for any reason doesn't violate the 4th Amendment, which in theory (if not in practice anymore, it seems) protects persons in the USA from unreasonable searches.

But, thanks to this case (and to the conservative justices' fear of anyone and everyone), you can now be strip-searched any time you are arrested, purely on the whim of the police officer. As the NPR story notes, people have already been arrested and strip-searched for such horrifically-threatening-to-society offenses like:
  • driving with a broken headlight,
  • having outstanding parking tickets,
  • violating a dog leash law, and
  • riding a bike without an audible bell.
In practice, this ruling is actually a license for the police to strip-search anyone they want at almost any time, because it's almost impossible to live in the modern U.S. without violating some law that can get you arrested somewhere. In addition to the above offenses (better hope your car's lights don't go out without you noticing!), here are more things that can get you arrested (and now strip-searched) in the good ole US of A:
  • protesting somewhere that a cop doesn't like (even though this is often 100% legal),
  • driving without a seat belt,
  • jay-walking,
  • speeding, even 1 MPH over the posted limit,
  • failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign,
  • selling lemonade without a permit,
  • selling raw milk to a neighbor,
  • videotaping the police (even though this is 100% legal),
  • giving out water without a permit (in LA),
  • operating a train that does not have an "F" painted on the front,
  • collecting rain that falls from the sky on to your own property,
  • not recycling cat litter (in DC)
  • giving a tour of the monuments in Washington D.C. without a license,
  • defacing a milk carton (in MA),
  • selling pumpkins or Christmas trees that are grown outside city limits (in Lake Elmo, MN),
  • being "annoying" on the Internet,
  • registering with a false name on MySpace or Facebook,
  • selling girl scout cookies in the front yards of your own home (in Hazelwood, MO),
  • bringing a plastic butter knife into a school (FL),
  • holding a home Bible study without a "conditional use permit" in San Juan Capistrano, CA, and
  • making even a single dollar from a blog in Philadelphia, PA unless you buy a $300 business license.
The US has become a nation in which so many things are illegal that most people do something illegal every day, whether they know it or not. That itself is a big problem, but when combined with the now-unrestricted power of the police to strip-search anyone they arrest for any reason, the US continues to slide down the dangerous slope towards a police state. And that's not me being hyperbolic - serious constitutional scholars are whipping out the "police state" rhetoric over this blatantly bad Supreme Court decision.

So, yes, thanks to the ongoing wisdom of the current Supreme Court and its 5 conservative justices, you too can be strip-searched by the police at pretty much any time for pretty much any reason. (Begin chanting.) U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! (End chanting.) Someone should hook up some dynamos to the Founding Fathers' graves - this Court must have them spinning so fast that we can wean ourselves off burning coal for electricity.

This last case is a little different from the cases outlined in my previous posts on the Supreme Court, as this case doesn't involve what I consider to be a purely political decision - there were obviously serious constitutional rights at stake in this case as well - but I happen to agree with the other 4 justices that the 5 conservative justices are on the wrong side of the law and of history here. In this case, as with so many other cases, the 5 conservative justices on the current Supreme Court decided to side with the powerful (the police) against the powerless (a citizen wrongly arrested by the police).

Shame on them.

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