Going forward from this week on, people arrested in the United States may face a mandatory strip search, even if their offense is minor and authorities don't suspect them of smuggling any contraband.


That's because U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy sided with the court's conservatives on Monday, swinging the vote 5-4 in favor of allowing jail officials to conduct a strip search of anyone in their custody.

Those searches may now even be carried out on people who've only committed minor offenses like traffic violations or small drug possession, and in cases where there is nothing that meets the previous standard of "reasonable suspicion" that someone may be hiding something.

In its opinion (PDF), the court's majority suggested that strip searches would make inmate populations safer by helping to stem the tide of drugs and weapons, and healthier by identifying early on inmates with injuries or infectious diseases.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the court's dissenting minority, argued that strip searches are a "serious affront to human dignity and to individual privacy," which should only be used when absolutely necessary.

"I have found no convincing reason indicating that, in the absence of reasonable suspicion, involuntary strip searches of those arrested for minor offenses are necessary in order to further the penal interests mentioned," he added. "And there are strong reasons to believe they are not justified."

Monday's decision sprang from the 2005 arrest of New Jersey resident Albert Florence. Florence was arrested after an officer pulled over his wife for speeding, only to discover that he had a warrant for an unpaid fine. After spending seven days in two different jails, being strip searched upon admittance at both, he was released after officials figured out that he'd already paid the fine.

Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority that Florence's detention at the Burlington County Detention Center and the Essex County Correctional Facility "struck a reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the needs of the institutions" -- which is to say, the court believes that inmates are entitled to virtually no right to privacy when that challenges the more pressing safety issues presented by managing a prison population.

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