He spent seven days in jail because of a warrant that said, mistakenly, he was wanted for failure to pay a court fine. In fact, he carried proof that the fine had been paid years earlier.
And he was strip-searched twice, the humiliation that he says most remains with him six years later.
“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” Florence, 35, said in a recent interview, describing how he was forced to strip with other men and be examined by a guard.
But the question for the Supreme Court next month — when it will weigh an individual’s privacy right against the interest of jailers in maintaining safety and security — is whether such strip searches are unconstitutional.
Florence says that strip-searching him for a minor offense without any reason to believe he was smuggling contraband into the jail violated his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The class of those joining Florence’s suit against two New Jersey jails includes, according to the brief he filed with the court, those who were strip-searched after being detained for “driving with a noisy muffler, failing to use a turn signal, and riding a bicycle without an audible bell.”
For nearly three decades after the Supreme Court decided a case called
Bell v. Wolfish, federal courts interpreted the ruling to mean jailers must have reasonable suspicion before strip-searching those they detain on minor charges.
But more recently, appeals courts in Atlanta, San Francisco and the one in Philadelphia that ruled against Florence have disagreed. They said the Fourth Amendment does not forbid a blanket policy of strip-searching those sent into the general prison population, no matter the charge.
“It is self-evident that preventing the introduction of weapons and drugs into the prison environment is a legitimate interest of concern for prison administrators,” Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman wrote for the divided panel that rejected Florence’s argument. The jails’ security interests outweighed Florence’s privacy rights, he said.
Law enforcement officials, lawyers, civil libertarians and politicians are just as divided as the courts.
The American Bar Association, which is supporting Florence, said a policy allowing strip searches of all who are arrested would mean a drastic expansion of a procedure that the Supreme Court has called so intrusive it falls “into a category of its own.”
“Nearly 14 million Americans are arrested each year,” the ABA wrote in its brief to the court, and many “do not involve violence or drugs and do not suggest a motive or opportunity to smuggle contraband into a prison.”
But an array of states, municipalities and the Obama administration are supporting the two jails Florence is suing — in Burlington County and the Essex County Correctional Facility here, in a rough-looking part of town near the Newark waterfront.