Squat and cough for the Supreme Court

I’d been meaning to write about this, but never gotten around to it.  This column, however, is awesome and deserves an extended exceprt:

Imagine, gentle reader, that you decide to become a criminal mastermind. The first step to global domination will be smuggling contraband — that is, weapons or drugs — into the Burlington County, New Jersey, jail. Your scheme is worthy of Oswald C. Cobblepot: You will insert the offensive items into a bodily cavity or affix them on an inconspicuous part of your body. Then, you and your wife and child will climb into the family BMW. To divert suspicion from your plan, you will place your wife behind the wheel, then have her commit a routine traffic infraction. (Luckily, you are African American, thus making a police stop far more likely.) When you are stopped, you will immediately identify yourself, thus ensuring that the police officer will find an invalid warrant against your name. You will play Tom Sawyer, producing documents suggesting that the warrant has been satisfied. This is a clever ploy: you appear reluctant to be arrested, when in fact it is your fondest wish.
So far, the plan has functioned flawlessly. There is still, however, a potential flaw: because the warrant is invalid, the police can thwart your scheme by simply presenting you to a magistrate upon arrest, as they should do, rather than processing you into the jail. But luck is with you: the officers ignore the law and frog-march you into the hoosegow.

But then — holy lockdown! — the alert jail staff, in violation of New Jersey law, conduct a strip search of your person. Foiled!

Except, of course, that in the actual events at issue in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, argued Wednesday before the Supreme Court, the victim of the illegal detention and search, Albert Florence, was not a criminal mastermind at all, but an auto-dealership employee on his way to a family dinner. The strip search produced no contraband; a second strip search, when Florence was transferred to another county’s jail after a week of illegal detention, was even more intrusive, requiring Florence to squat and cough under the eyes of jail staff. It also produced no contraband.

What sane person would have thought it would? The two counties that Florence has sued for subjecting him to this squalid ordeal now argue that there is no need for any sane suspicion –that any person, even one arrested for a non-criminal offense such as failure to pay a fine — can be subjected to repeated strip searches on the off chance that he or she may be carrying contraband. Florence insists that the authorities need “reasonable suspicion” in this case.

What ends up being more embarrassing and humiliating than this is the response of the Justices during oral arguments.  Dignity, reasonable suspicion?  Who needs that?  He was arrested– surely he’s a bad guy.   Just read the rest.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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