In 1998, Albert Florence was arrested after fleeing the police and charged with obstruction of justice and use of a deadly weapon. Florence v. Bd. of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington, 132 S. Ct. 1510, 1514 (2012). As part of a plea agreement, he was sentenced to pay a fine in monthly installments. Id. In 2003, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest after he fell behind on his monthly payments. He paid the balance less than a week after the warrant was issued, but the warrant mistakenly remained in a statewide database. Id. 

In 2005, roughly seven years after his 1998 arrest, and two years after having paid his fine, Mr. Florence’s BMW was pulled over while he was a passenger in the vehicle and his wife was driving. The state trooper arrested Mr. Florence based on the outstanding warrant that erroneously remained in the statewide database and took him to the Burlington County Detention Center. Id. 

Mr. Florence was held for a week in jails in Burlington and Essex Counties and was strip-searched upon entry to each jail. At the Burlington County Jail, he was forced to shower with a delousing agent while being observed by an officer and was checked for scars, marks, and gang tattoos. He was also “instructed to open his mouth, lift his tongue, hold out his arms, turn around, and lift his genitals.” Id. Upon arrival to the Essex County Jail, Mr. Florence claimed he was ordered to “lift his genitals, turn around, and cough in a squatting position.” Id.  He was released the next day after authorities realized he did not have an outstanding warrant and the charges against him were dismissed. Id.

Mr. Florence filed a lawsuit arguing his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated. He argued that persons arrested for minor offenses could not be subjected to strip-searches as a routine part of the intake process. Id. at 1515. The District Court granted Mr. Florence’s motion for summary judgment on the unlawful search claims. Id. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed, holding the procedures used by the jails “struck a reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the security needs of the two jails.” Id. 

The issue for the Supreme Court to decide was “whether undoubted security imperatives involved in jail supervision override the assertion that some detainees must be exempt from the more invasive search procedures at issue absent reasonable suspicion of a concealed weapon or other contraband.” Id. at 1518. Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion for the court, which upheld the appellate court decision and concluded the procedures used by the jails were justified. Id.  Kennedy reasoned that detecting contraband is crucial to maintaining jailhouse safety. He wrote, “Correctional officers have had to confront arrestees concealing knives, scissors, razor blades, glass shards, and other prohibited items..in their body cavities.” Id. at 1519. 

Mr. Florence acknowledged the need for effective searches during the intake process, but argued there is little benefit to searching a new detainee who has not been arrested for a serious crime such as weapons or drugs. In response to this argument, Justice Kennedy reasoned that the seriousness of an offense is a poor predicate of who has contraband. Id. at 1520. To support this proposition, he pointed to Timothy McVeigh’s traffic stop for driving without a license plate and the traffic stop of serial killer Joel Rifkin for the same reason. Id. at 1520. 

What does this mean for the rest of us? It means that officials may strip-search people arrested for even the most minor offenses before admitting them to jail even if there is no reason to suspect the presence of contraband on the detainee. According to the dissent written by Justice Breyer, it means a person could be subjected to a strip-search if arrested for things as trivial as “driving with a noisy muffler, driving with an inoperable headlight, failing to use a turn signal, or riding a bicycle without an audible bell.” Id. at 1527. You may want to think twice the next time you consider crossing the street on a red light. 

By Nate Berg, a 2012 Summer Associate at Larkin Hoffman Daly & Lindgren.