Arrest procedures are designed to facilitate the safe and orderly admission of a person to a detention facility, not to waste precious time and resources undermining that person’s dignity.
The Supreme Court failed to take this concept into account Monday, when it ruled that officials may strip-search people arrested for any offense, even if the officials have no reason to suspect possession of contraband.
The court claims that under these circumstances — that is, potential release into the general prison population — strip searches are not forbidden by the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches. The court, however, seems unable to prove what the justifiable reason for these searches might be.
According to the annual FBI Uniform Crime Report, more than 13 million Americans were arrested in 2010. Of these, only about 1.6 million were for drug abuse violations, and 552,000 were for violent crimes. The other 11 million were for offenses ranging from motor vehicle theft to refusal to pay a traffic ticket.
It makes sense that a police officer would strip-search a person arrested for drugs or violent crime. The nature of these offenses suggests that he or she would have good reason to conceal an illegal substance or weapon in intimate locations on his or her body. But should someone who fails to use a turn signal during a harried trip to work or who neglects a child support payment be forced to undergo the same humiliating procedure?
The only reason an officer can provide for strip-searching a person not actually suspected of carrying contraband is “just in case.”
By that logic, police officers should be able to walk up to any person in a public area and demand that the person turn out his or her pockets, on the off chance the officers will find a concealed substance or weapon.
The scenario seems absurd because it is. Our justice system is supposed to be based on probable cause. Everything from the process for obtaining search warrants to the way a lawyer presents a defendant’s case is based on the idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Travel too far outside of that realm, and it soon becomes acceptable for a person arrested for a crime such as not paying a fine to be treated like someone who held up a liquor store. Consider what would happen if a prosecutor or a judge adopted the same attitude; he or she might even view a petty offender as a murderer.
Even more troubling is the idea that corrupt officers who might want to use strip searches as a means of sexual harassment have now been granted license to demand strip searches whenever they want, without consequence and without reason.
Unnecessary strip-searching also damages the efficiency of the American justice system. Strip searches take time — time that could often be much better spent actively working to keep the community safe.
While one surrenders many personal freedoms upon being arrested, dignity and privacy are not among them. People should not have their Fourth Amendment right violated in the interest of paranoia.
Francesca Bessey is a freshman majoring in narrative studies. Point/Counterpoint runs Fridays.
For a different perspective on this topic, click here.