By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Monday upheld strip searches of new jail inmates, even those arrested for minor traffic offenses, ruling that security concerns outweigh personal privacy rights.
By a 5-4 vote, splitting along conservative-liberal ideological lines, the high court rejected the argument that the searches violated privacy rights and cited concerns by jailers about a suspect hiding drugs, weapons or other contraband.
In the opinion for the court's conservative majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy concluded the jail search procedures "struck a reasonable balance" between inmate privacy and the needs of the institution.
The decision could have broad impact as nearly 14 million Americans spend time in jail or prison every year, including an estimated 700,000 people in jail for minor misdemeanor offenses.
The court's four liberals dissented, calling the searches harmful, humiliating and degrading, especially when jailers have no reason to suspect the presence of contraband on those arrested for minor offenses like driving with a noisy muffler.
The justices upheld a ruling by a U.S. appeals court based in Philadelphia that everyone entering a jail can be routinely searched, even without suspicion of any criminal activity.
The decision was a victory for the jails and for the Obama administration, which argued for strip searches of all those entering the general jail population, even those arrested on minor offenses.
Attorneys for Albert Florence, who was strip searched twice at two New Jersey jails in a six-day period after his arrest for an unpaid traffic fine, argued that jailers must first have a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.
Florence sued on the grounds that the conduct in 2005 at two jails in Burlington and Essex counties violated his constitutional rights protecting against unreasonable searches.
At the first jail, Florence said he was ordered to hold out his arms, turn around and lift his genitals. At the second jail, Florence, a finance director at a car dealership, was ordered to squat and cough while jailers looked for contraband.
EXEMPTION FROM SEARCHES REJECTED
Kennedy rejected the proposal by Florence's attorneys that new detainees not arrested for serious crimes involving weapons or drugs be exempt from invasive searches unless they give officers a reason to suspect them of hiding contraband.
That risks "increased danger to everyone in the facility, including the less serious offenders themselves," he said.
Kennedy wrote in the opinion that security imperatives involved in jail supervision outweigh the argument that some detainees must be exempt from the search procedures.
"Correctional officials have a significant interest in conducting a thorough search as a standard part of the intake process," he wrote, adding that jails and prisons face potential gang violence and problems from smuggled contraband.
Even people arrested for minor offenses may be coerced by others into concealing contraband, Kennedy wrote.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito joined the ruling, but also issued separate opinions saying there could be future exceptions for those detained on minor charges and kept apart from the rest of the jail population.
The court's four liberals, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, dissented.
"I cannot find justification for the strip-search policy at issue here - a policy that would subject those arrested for minor offenses to serious invasions of their personal privacy," Breyer wrote in a dissent that his liberal colleagues joined.
He cited the "serious affront to human dignity" resulting from the searches when a stranger stares at a naked individual, including the most private parts of that person's body.
Breyer noted instances when individuals arrested for minor offenses have been subjected to humiliating visual strip searches, including a nun for 50 years who was arrested for trespassing during an antiwar demonstration.
The federal government has a policy of strip-searching anyone entering a jail's general population.
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 agreed to decide Florence's appeal after federal courts around the country issued conflicting rulings about strip searches in jails.
The Supreme Court case is Florence vs. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington, No. 10-945.
(Reporting By James Vicini)