Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in the 5 to 4 ruling, saying that correctional officials have good reason to “perform thorough searches at intake for disease, gang affiliation, and contraband.”
“There is a substantial interest 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,” Kennedy wrote.
More than 13 million people are admitted to jails each year, Kennedy wrote.
The Supreme Court’s decision continued a trend that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks of giving jailers more leeway in searching those picked up even for the most minor offenses, such as expired licenses or noisy mufflers.
At the same time, at least 10 states have forbidden strip searches without reasonable suspicion. And the Federal Bureau of Prisons does not subject those arrested for misdemeanor or civil contempt offenses to visual body-cavity searches without their consent or reasonable suspicion that they may be hiding contraband. They are kept from the general prison population.
Kennedy noted there are many definitions to the term “strip search” and said the decision relates to close visual inspection of a person’s body without touching.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. agreed with the outcome of the case but wrote separately to emphasize that the decision concerned only those admitted to the general population of a correctional facility. An exception to the rule might apply to those detained on minor charges and kept apart from the rest of the jail population, they said.
Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the decision “jeopardizes the privacy rights of millions of people who are arrested each year and brought to jail, often for minor offenses.”
But he noted that states were still allowed to forbid such searches and said the justices were “careful to recognize that strip searches may still be unconstitutional under certain circumstances.”
Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by the rest of the court’s liberals. He said corrections officials must have reason to believe that the person arrested poses a danger before subjecting them to a strip search that is “inherently harmful, humiliating, and degrading.”
“And the harm to privacy interests would seem particularly acute where the person searched may well have no expectation of being subject to such a search, say, because she had simply received a traffic ticket for failing to buckle a seatbelt, because he had not previously paid a civil fine, or because she had been arrested for a minor trespass,” Breyer wrote.