02 April 2012


From the Washington Post ~ "The Supreme Court ruled Monday that those arrested for even minor violations may be strip-searched before being admitted to jail .... Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in the 5 to 4 ruling, saying that corrections officers have good reason to 'perform thorough searches at intake for disease, gang affiliation, and contraband' .... Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by the rest of the court's liberals.  They said corrections officers must have reasonable suspicion that the person arrested poses a danger before subjecting them to a strip search that is 'inherently harmful, humiliating, and degrading'."

I find this ruling disturbing.  On the one hand, it flies in the face of a number of Constitutional protections, including the requirement for probable cause ~ a law enforcement officer must have reasonable grounds for suspecting an illicit act before making an arrest or conducting a personal or property search.  Until an accused person has been tried and found guilty, he or she is entitled to the presumption of innocence.  Does it make sense that some detained for a traffic violation or other minor offence should be treated like a convicted felon?

The problem is, I understand the reasoning behind both sides of the argument.  I worked for five years as a security officer at a Tennessee DCS boys group home.  It was a halfway house residential setting for juvenile felony offenders who had been tried, sentenced, served their time, and were now being prepared for re-entry into society.  According to Tennessee law and DCS policy, we officers had both the right and the obligation to perform pat-down searches or room searches at any time ~ in particular if contraband was found or if boys were returning to the group home from an outing or from their off-grounds workplace.  Further, when they were returning from a weekend pass home, a strip search was mandatory before joining the other boys.

I performed searches as part of my job.  Room and pat-down searches were routine and necessary, given the flow of contraband, and given that some boys took it as a challenge to see what they could get away with.  Personally, I found strip searches to be uncomfortable and demeaning for the resident and the officer alike, even though they served as a deterrent.

But notice a distinction ~ the routine searches I've just described were performed on individuals with a history of serious crime, for which they had been convicted and served time.  We knew each individual's history of crime, drug use, or gang affiliation before they walked in the door.  Further, our searches were in response to ongoing smuggling of contraband.  In short, our boys were already in the system.  The Supreme Court ruling applies to anyone who is arrested, before becoming part of the system.  The ruling is not consistent with American law, but is consistent with France's Napoleonic code, in which a suspect is considered guilty until proven innocent.

I find the ruling to be one more piece of evidence that the Court has drifted further and further to the right during the past 30 years.  This is not good news, even for conservatives.  Ideally, the Court's justices should be evenly balanced between conservatives, liberals, and moderates.  Only in such a balanced environment can one expect rulings which are dispassionate and in accord with Constitutional mandates.  Regardless of your political beliefs, this is a sad day for the civil rights of every one of us.

Here is Marcia Coyle's discussion of the ruling (video and transcript) from tonight's PBS Newshour.  She sheds light on the particulars of the case, and the reasons behind the votes.

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