By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court considered on Wednesday whether jails violated constitutional privacy rights by routinely strip searching everyone, even those arrested on minor traffic offenses.
The arguments pitted safety concerns by jails and the Obama administration about a suspect hiding drugs, weapons or other contraband against a suspect's constitutional privacy rights protecting against unreasonable searches.
An estimated 700,000 people are in jail in the United States every year for less serious misdemeanor offenses.
The justices asked about the intrusiveness of different searches such as a guard's visual exam of a naked detainee, a body cavity search and making a nude detainee squat and cough. They questioned how close guards can get to detainees who must take off their clothes and shower when entering the jail.
Attorneys for the jails and for the administration argued in favor of an across-the-board rule allowing strip searches of all those who enter the general jail population, even those who have been arrested on minor offenses such as speeding.
Tom Goldstein, an attorney for Albert Florence, who was strip searched twice at two New Jersey jails over a six-day period after his arrest for an unpaid traffic fine, argued jailers much first have reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.
"This is a significant intrusion of individual privacy and individual dignity," Goldstein said.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, a moderate conservative who often controls the outcome on the court, said he thought county jails were more dangerous than penitentiaries.
"You don't know who these people are. You arrest them for traffic (violations) and they may be some serial killer you do not know," Kennedy said.
Washington attorney Carter Phillips, who argued on behalf of the two jails, said a serious problem existed with drugs and other contraband smuggled into jails and urged the court to defer to the judgment of administrators on what searches to use.
Responding to a question from Justice Samuel Alito, Phillips said a person arrested just for having tickets for being caught on speed cameras can be subjected to searches.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked whether the right to search someone should depend on whether the suspect has been arrested for a crime that carries jail time and on whether sufficient reason existed for the arrest and detention.
"There is something unsettling about permitting the police to arrest people for things like kids who are staying out after curfew," she said.
Assistant Solicitor General Nicole Saharsky said the high court should allow strip searches of anyone entering the jail's general population, a policy used by the federal government.
Jailers must make quick decisions on large numbers of people put into the general prison population. "They have very little time and if they guess wrong, those mistakes can be deadly," she said.
A ruling in the case is expected early next year.
The Supreme Court last addressed a similar issue in 1979, when it upheld strip searches of all prisoners at a facility in New York after contacts with visitors.
The Supreme Court case is Florence vs. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington, No. 10-945.
(Reporting by James Vicini, Editing by Cynthia Osterman)