5 Former AGs Challenge Jails’ Blanket Strip Searches

For Immediate Release
January 19, 2010

NEWARK, NJ – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) today filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of five former New Jersey Attorneys General opposing the blanket strip search policies of the Burlington County Jail and Essex County Correctional Facility. The jails’ policies currently require strip searches for people charged with but not convicted of minor offenses, and even when there is no reasonable suspicion that an arrestee possesses contraband.

“Strip searching every detainee is unconstitutional, it contributes little to jail security and it creates an intolerable risk of subjecting detainees to needless humiliation,” said Ed Barocas, Legal Director for the ACLU-NJ. “There is no legitimate reason for these types of policies to exist.”

The amicus brief , filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on behalf of former New Jersey Attorneys General Robert J. Del Tufo, Deborah T. Poritz, John J. Farmer Jr., Peter C. Harvey and Zulima V. Farber, defends the privacy and Fourth Amendment rights of Albert Florence.

Florence filed a lawsuit in 2005 charging officials at the two jails with unconstitutionally subjecting him to two strip searches despite a lack of reasonable suspicion. The searches followed his erroneous arrest during a 2005 traffic stop for a fine he had already paid. He was ordered during the searches to squat naked and, while standing in front of prison guards, to lift his genitals.

“Being forced to strip naked is humiliating, and people charged with minor crimes shouldn’t be strip searched unless there’s a reason to think they’re hiding something,” said David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project.

Consistent with legal precedent, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez ruled in February 2009 that the strip search of Florence violated the Constitution. However, officials representing both Burlington and Essex Counties appealed the decision, placing the case before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

The former Attorneys General’s brief notes that Judge Rodriguez’s decision prevents strip searches only for non-indictable offenses that do not involve contraband and when there is no reason to suspect contraband. Additionally, his decision does not preclude strip searches following visitation.

Previous federal rulings have also banned strip searches of low-level arrestees unless jail officials can prove reasonable suspicion that the inmate may have drugs, guns or other illegal contraband. The standard of reasonable suspicion still allows prison officials to use broad discretion in determining if a strip search is necessary.

A copy of the amicus brief is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/florence-v-board-chosen-freeholders-county-burlington-et-al-amicus-brief

Additional information about ACLU-NJ is available online at: http://www.aclu-nj.org

Additional information about the ACLU National Prison Project is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/prison