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Supreme Court rules on strip searches for minor offenses

A New Jersey man lost his appeal to the Supreme Court regarding invasive strip searches for minor offenses that take place in jails. The court ruled that security takes precedence over privacy in potentially dangerous situations. This is a disappointing ruling for many criminal defense attorneys.

The case stems from an incident with a New Jersey man who was strip searched two different times following his arrest on an unpaid traffic violation -- fleeing a traffic stop, which he had already paid.

The man was a passenger in the car that his pregnant wife was driving along with his 4-year-old son. His wife was pulled over for speeding, but the court felt that the circumstance of his arrest wasn't critical in their decision. When officers pulled the vehicle over, they found a warrant out for the man's arrest for the unpaid fine and arrested him. The man had been stopped before and carried a letter documenting that he had paid the fine. The man showed the officer the document, but the officer still arrested him and took him to jail.

He was subject to a strip search to make sure that he was not hiding anything. While awaiting a hearing, he remained in custody and was transferred to another facility six days later. Upon his arrival, he was subjected to another strip search. After seven days, he had his hearing and the charges were dismissed and the man filed his lawsuit.

Attorneys for the man argued that people who are pulled over unexpectedly, usually aren't trying to hide anything and that even if the warrant had been valid, failure to pay a fine is not a crime in New Jersey and he shouldn't have been subjected to a strip search.

Prior to the terrorist attacks in 2001, the lower courts prohibited routine strip searches for minor offenses, but in recent years, the courts have allowed jails more discretion of searches based on security.

The court felt that in this case the man was held with other inmates and the jail had the right to do a strip search for the safety of the inmate population and guards.

The man in this case may pursue other claims, including that he should never have been arrested in the first place.

Source: USA Today, "High court upholds jailhouse strip searches," April 2, 2012

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