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Busted in the US? 'Drop your trousers, sir'

Supremes allow strip search for any offense – nuns too

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Again displaying their infinite law-and-order wisdom, the US Supreme Court has ruled that anyone arrested for any offense, however innocuous, can be strip-searched, even if there's no suspicion that they are concealing contraband.

"Every detainee who will be admitted to the general [jail or prison] population may be required to undergo a close visual inspection while undressed," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, traditionally the swing vote between the court's four conservative and four liberal justices.

Swinger Kennedy swung right in this case, writing the majority opinion in the 5-to-4 decision in "Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington et al." (Note: no mention was made of what those Freeholders were, uh, holding...)

"Maintaining safety and order at detention centers requires the expertise of correctional officials," Kennedy wrote, "who must have substantial discretion to devise reasonable solutions to problems."

The courts made their ruling despite an amicus curiae brief filed by the American Bar Association which pointed out – among many other arguments – that "various multilateral treaties" to which the US is a party forbid "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of prisoners.

The ABA also notes that Albert Florence, who brought the original suit, was stripped-searched twice, once in private when "the supervising officer inspected Mr. Florence's mouth, tongue, armpits, buttocks, and genitals," and a second time when "he was forced to strip off his clothes in a shower area with a group of four other prisoners, all of whom were required to open their mouths, lift their genitals, and 'squat and cough' in plain sight of one another."

Florence, by the way, was arrested when his wife was pulled over for speeding (he was a passenger, and his son was in the back seat), and a check of his record showed an unpaid fine for an earlier offense. That record-check was wrong – the fine had been paid – but Florence spent a week in jail anyway, where he underwent the two strip searches.

"I consider myself a man's man," Florence told The New York Times last year. "Six-three. Big guy. It was humiliating. It made me feel less than a man. It made me feel not better than an animal."

Florence, who is a finance exec for a car dealership, is black – although we're not arguing that it was merely his race that led to his treatment, nor did he.

After all, as Justice Stephen Breyer noted in his dissent to the majority ruling, additional amicus curiae briefs revealed that strip searches have been inflicted upon citizens collared for driving with a noisy muffler or a busted headlight, failing to use a turn signal, riding a bicycle without an audible bell – even for violating a dog-leash law.

Breyer also wrote of "a nun, a Sister of Divine Providence for 50 years, who was arrested for trespassing during an antiwar demonstration," who was strip-searched.

This last example argues against the majority's assertion that an unbridled use of strip searches for any offense and without the requirement for suspicion is necessary to detect gang tattoos, weapons, or drugs.

On second thought, as a Catholic elementary school graduate, your Reg reporter well remembers those long-ago nuns. A crafty lot, they were. ®

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