Strip-search ruling could change local policies

By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal

Be prepared for a strip search if you’re arrested and taken to jail.
Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that jail strip searches are legal, even if you’re arrested for a minor traffic offense or failure to pay a fine.
The 5-4 ruling decided that jailhouse security concerns outweigh a suspect’s Fourth Amendment privacy rights.
A strip search requires a person to remove all clothing and sometimes squat and cough so that an inspection will reveal the presence of forbidden items.
In Lee County, the jail policy generally is to conduct a strip search on misdemeanor suspects only when officers believe the person could pose a threat called “reasonable suspicion” to have hidden weapons, drugs, cellphones or other so-called contraband.
Gary Carnathan of Tupelo, attorney for the Lee County Board of Supervisors, said all felony suspects are subjected to strip searches.
“It appears that the ruling allows strip searches on anybody,” Carnathan said about the 41-page decision, which he said he was about to examine thoroughly.
He said the county’s policy could change in light of the court’s decision.
Oxford legal expert George Cochran doesn’t think too much of the decision.
The legendary constitutional law professor at the University of Mississippi said the ruling raises questions about the court majority’s commitment to constitutional rights.
“It reflects what is now a well-recognized and deeply embedded split on the court that produces a real concern by both the liberals and conservatives,” Cochran observed, “as to the credibility of the institution and what civil liberties are, or should be, protected by the Constitution.”
Defense attorney Mike Cooke of Iuka said the nation’s highest court has swung too far to the conservative right.
“Once again it appears our courts have sided with the ‘Establishment’ and eroded the rights of individual citizens,” he said Tuesday.
“Individual rights are at an all-time low in this country. The pendulum seems to have swung about as far right as it can go.”
Attorney and legal blogger Philip Thomas of Clinton also voiced concern about the decision, citing the 2011 instance of teen suspects strip-searched at the Alcorn County Youth Detention Center.
“The decision is a shocking statement about how disconnected a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court’s justices are from the real world,” he observed, saying it’s dangerous to give unlimited discretion “to uneducated, untrained, low-paid jail workers.
“The rule that authorities have a good reason to conduct a strip search is very reasonable and still gives authorities wide discretion. The (new) ruling implicitly encourages abuse in jails, because it tells jail officials that offenders do not have even basic rights of human dignity.”
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said this week he, Carnathan and the county’s insurance carrier planned to meet April 13 to discuss the ruling and its impact locally.
“We’re not necessarily going to change anything,” he said. “But we’re going to talk about it.”
Regardless, the everybody-gets-strip-searched policy may soon be the new normal.
Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy explained that, “there is a substantial interest in preventing any new inmate … from putting all who live or work at these institutions at even greater risk.” It’s therefore reasonable for correctional facilities to check every new inmate for drugs, weapons and other contraband.
Even a low-level offender could be carrying a weapon.
Authorities point to the arrest of Timothy McVeigh on a traffic stop. McVeigh was one of the Oklahoma City bombers, who in April 1995 killed 168 people and injured more than 800 people in revenge for federal agents’ killings at Ruby Ridge and the Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, exactly two years before.
Shortly after the bombing, McVeigh was stopped for driving a vehicle without a license plate.
In the court’s dissent by four liberal justices, they said that jail strip searches are legal only when officers have reasonable suspicion. Jail strip searches are “inherently harmful, humiliating and degrading.” This harm is “particularly acute where the person … had simply received a traffic ticket … or because she had been arrested for a minor trespass.”
Regardless, the majority’s decision is the law now.
Jail strip searches are legal so long as the searched individuals are going to be placed in the general prison population.
Carnathan notes that the underlying offense and the reason for the search are pretty much irrelevant.
patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com