GUEST VIEW: Supreme Court ruling means a loss of privacy

The following editorial was published in the April 4 edition of The Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio:

Writing for a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy warned that “many people detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals.” He pointed to Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing, who first was arrested for driving without a license plate. All of this was part of the court holding on Monday that officials may strip-search people arrested for any offense, no matter how minor, before admitting them to jail.

The concern for security is understandable. Correctional officials must weigh the possibility of smuggled drugs and weapons, plus factors of public health and gang affiliation. What is missing in the court ruling is an appropriate sense of balance, or sufficient respect for the crucial factor of privacy, the principle at work in the constitutional guarantee against unreasonable searches.

Consider the case before the court: A state trooper stopped Albert Florence for speeding. A records search revealed an outstanding warrant for his arrest based on an unpaid fine. Florence spent a week in jail. He was strip-searched twice, humiliated in no small way, even though the information was wrong. He had paid the fine.

Was this treatment necessary? At least 10 states have barred such searches for minor offenses without reasonable suspicion of the person carrying contraband. Federal policies follow a similar track. The American Bar Association has highlighted international human rights treaties that prohibit what the court now has approved.

The court majority relies heavily on the discretion of authorities in knowing when a strip-search is required. Yet in dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer noted the record of strip-searches applied to people arrested for failing to use a turn signal or bicycling without a bell, even a nun for trespassing during an anti-war demonstration.

Breyer argued persuasively that a better understanding of the Fourth Amendment protections would prohibit strip-searches for minor offenses – unless they involve drugs, or violence, or officials have a reasonable suspicion of contraband. He reminded that there are other less intrusive methods, such as metal detectors and pat-downs, that deliver an equivalent measure of security.

In a way, the majority opinion echoes the excesses since the Sept. 11 attacks, the pursuit of security given too much leeway, fear prevailing, precious values compromised. The sound thinking is, a balance must be attained, with adequate respect for dignity and privacy. That could have been achieved here. Instead, the court carelessly found that a strip-search can follow any arrest.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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