The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Monday in favor of preserving correctional officers’ right to strip search any suspect they take into custody, regardless of the severity of the offense.
The decision has prompted public outcry over what is seen as a humiliating show of power by police officers and a violation of human rights.
But there is a clear reason as to why strip searches cannot be banned in these situations: safety.
Strip searches, if demanded by authorities, require a suspect to stand naked in front of officers and undergo a close visual inspection. No bodily contact, however, is allowed.
There is no doubt that this must be an incredibly unpleasant experience for suspects who are unfortunate enough to undergo a strip search. But such emotional turmoil is minor compared to the physical harm that a suspect hiding weapons could inflict on the general prison population.
The ruling will allow correctional officials to ensure the safety of both officers and inmates. Any other ruling would have been a dangerous removal of professional sovereignty for officers working with some of the most dangerous people in the country.
The main constitutional clause at issue was the unreasonable search and seizure stipulation of the Fourth Amendment, which states that no citizen shall be subject to a search by government authorities or to detainment without established probable cause.
But the court’s decision does not require all suspects to undergo strip searches; rather, it does not prohibit officers from ordering and performing them. Justice Anthony Kennedy stressed that only officers subjected to the dangers of correctional facilities can make the judgment of whether a strip search is warranted.
Some justices who voted in favor of the searches suggested that there might be room for exemption, an example being suspects that are not being held in the general prison population and do not pose a significant threat to others. Still, arrestees being released into the general population in correctional facilities all have the potential to hide weapons or contraband on their persons.
It is relatively rare for strip searches to detect weapons. Justice Stephen Breyer cited an example from an Orange County, N.Y., correctional facility in which there was at most one instance in which a strip search detected contraband among the 23,000 inmates studied.
Nevertheless, the fact that even one person could or would smuggle forbidden and potentially dangerous objects into such facilities is enough to justify the practice.
If a person is arrested, they cannot expect his or her every whim to be satisfied. Of course detainees’ constitutional rights must be upheld and respected, but being strip-searched does not violate these rights.
It might be embarrassing, but safety must trump pride if prisons are to be as safe as possible.
Sarah Cueva is a sophomore majoring in Middle East studies and political science. Point/Counterpoint runs Fridays.
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