Stripping away the Fourth Amendment?

Supreme Court’s latest decision cause for alarm

You’d better hope you’re not pulled over for a faulty taillight any time soon. If you are, hold onto your britches—literally.

Supreme Court’s latest decision cause for alarm

You’d better hope you’re not pulled over for a faulty taillight any time soon. If you are, hold onto your britches—literally.

If the police officer decides that the offending lightbulb suggests you might just be carrying drugs on you, he or she can order you to disrobe all the way down to your birthday suit, and it’d be legal. Thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling, strip searches are now permitted for even the most minor offense—such as a simple traffic violation —if an officer decides to perform one.

This is a horrible interpretation of the Fourth Amendment. It’s basically a rewrite. Evidently, having the right “to be secure in [our] persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” really means: “except for when a policeman thinks otherwise.”

Albert Florence certainly found out avoiding a strip search wasn’t his right. In 2005, the finance manager was arrested when his wife, who was driving his BMW, was pulled over for speeding. Though Florence himself was not a suspect of any crime, the police officer happened to notice an apparent outstanding court fine in his name and promptly hand-cuffed and led him away—in front of his four-year-old son.

Florence had documentation that proved he had paid the fine, but that didn’t seem to help.

He was taken to jail, strip-searched and locked up for an entire week before it was discovered he was innocent. He was duly released along with profuse apologies for the unfortunate mistake.

So they made an error—shouldn’t he just suck it up? After all, as Justice Anthony M. Kennedy observed, strip searches are just a “close visual inspection of a person’s body without touching.” Sounds relatively harmless, right?

Well, maybe we should ask Florence how it felt when he was told to strip naked, lift his genitals, then squat and cough in front of officers—a procedure used to empty out a body cavity that might be hiding something. Talk about invasion of privacy.

What was the reasonable cause for the search? Apparently, Florence said, it was being a black man who was driving a nice car. And, with this latest decision, the Justices are now saying that’d be reason enough.

Up until now, prison authorities had only been permitted to perform a strip search if they had substantial, reasonable suspicion that a suspect had drugs or other contraband on their person. Thus, they were expected to prove their reasoning, which had provided a level of accountability. Now, there’s essentially none.

Citizens can be searched with no need for justifiable cause. It puts all the power in the hands of a select group of officials. That is a frightening thought. It creates a situation ripe for abuse, especially of people like Florence, who already have one strike against them due purely to the color of their skin.

But really, it could happen to any one of us. The amicus brief presented to the court told the story of Sister Bernie Galvin, a nun who was strip searched after being arrested for trespassing during an anti-war demonstration. Seriously, a nun?

Other victims were guilty of “driving with a noisy muffler … failing to use a turn signal or riding a bicycle without an audible bell.” Women who were lactating or menstruating were subjected to similar humiliation.

It’s baffling. The court has essentially rendered the Fourth Amendment null and void. How can they do this? Well, of course, they had a “reasonable” argument. Strip searches are needed, they concluded, to detect diseases, drugs, injuries, tattoos or any gang affiliations before prisoners enter the facility. But that doesn’t explain the nun, or Albert Florence or basically anyone who has done nothing to warrant suspicion other than looking like they could be guilty of something.

This decision should strike fear into the heart of any citizen who has forgotten to replace a noisy muffler. Not only does it infringe on our privacy rights, it also puts our freedom as U.S. citizens, for example, to peacefully protest in serious jeopardy.

If the discretion is left to law enforcement to decide who and what is deemed inappropriate and suspicious, chilling visions of tree-huggers in Portland parks being hauled off and forced to strip could become a reality.

Justice Kennedy insisted that “correctional officials have a legitimate interest, indeed a responsibility to ensure that jails are not made less secure by reason of what new detainees may carry in on their bodies.” Agreed. Absolutely no problem with that—except for when those of us on the outside are substantially less secure.

Strip searches are necessary and essential for ensuring the safety of officials and prisoners alike. Corrections officers have an enormously difficult and dangerous job and their well-being should be protected as the utmost priority. Armed with reasonable cause, they should have the right to search a suspect in order to be convinced that they are free of any dangerous contraband. Up until now, that’s how they’ve operated and, as they say, “if it ain’t broke …”

The Fourth Amendment exists for the explicit purpose of ensuring that our right to be secure is not violated. Albert Florence and Sister Galvin are just two examples of what could turn into thousands of cases where that very freedom is indeed violated and done so with the blessing of our highest court.

So, next time you leave your house, you may want to check the air pressure in your tires. You never know, they might look suspicious.