The Unreasonable Search and Seizure laws written in the United States’ Constitution have been called into question after a recent United States Supreme Court decision that police officers have the right to subject anyone at anytime, no matter how small the infraction, to a strip search.
The decision came as a result of the case of the 5-4 ruling in Florence v. Bd. of Chosen Freeholders, after a routine traffic stop led to the the passenger being subjected to a strip search.
St. James defense attorney Dan Birkholz weighed in with his thoughts on the issue.
“For routine traffic stops, as I read the opinion, not only the driver but the passengers can be strip searched,” said Birkholz. “I have absolutely no idea why ... that would be even necessary for minor traffic offenses, because what you’re really talking about is speeding, stop sign violations, careless driving, perhaps a DWI, which cover the vast majority of traffic offenses that people are arrested for. So, why in the world you would need to strip search people for that? I can’t imagine it would be necessary. I think it’s unreasonable.”
Birkholz also made it clear that he believed the decision to be “a very blatant invasion of privacy” to those pulled over for routine such routine traffic matter, especially when there are no allegations of a violent act or illegal drugs.
“Almost all traffic stops are done without search warrants,” Birkholz explained. “If there’s a search warrant involved, and the traffic stop occurs, and the officers are allowed to search the car or the premises, that may be one thing, but here [in the Supreme Court’s decision], as I understand it, there’s been no pre-determination by a judge to authorize or justify a search and certainly not a strip search. In addition, [during] most, virtually all, traffic offenses, except perhaps DWIs, the individuals who are stopped and given citations are not taken to law enforcement centers. ”
Watonwan County Sherriff Gary Menssen, on the other hand, believes strip searches should be used only on a case by case basis.
“The only time we have ever done them here is where we believed that the party has drugs on them or there’s been a drug-related offense,” said Menssen. “We’re not going to strip search everybody.”
Menssen added that the offense itself doesn’t usually warrant such drastic measure. It’s the demeanor and the officer’s suspicion that usually warrants such drastic measures.
“It really doesn’t matter on the offense,” said Menssen. “It’s gets determined by [whether or not] this party is hiding some kind of weapon or some kind of contraband; is there a reason that this person is giving us the feeling that maybe he’s hiding something. At this point, we don’t need a specific offense to decide that. It’s going to be determined by how the person’s reacting, what he’s doing.”
While he does agree, on a personal level, that the decision does violate rights, to a certain extent, he also believes strip searches may be warranted for parties possibly in violation of bigger laws and, therefore, going to bigger prisons for longer stays.
“I’m not in total agreement, especially for small jails” said Menssen, admittedly. “I probably do for going to prison in a state prison. For county jails, I’m not convinced this is a correct ruling. I understand why it’s that way, for the safety of the jails and stuff, but I think everybody has to ... use discretion in their own departments.”
As it happens, both Menssen and County Attorney Stephen Lindee believe the discretion ultimately belongs to the officers on duty.
“I hate to speak for the jails, because I’m not there in the trenches, doing what they do,” said a resigned Lindee. “I only receive the information after the fact, so I really defer to jail and law enforcement a lot, when it comes to dealing with folks out there, in the field ... I?respect the Supreme Court’s decision. I?mean, they’re the highest court in the land, so you have to respect their decision. Whether or not you agree or disagree with it, it is what it is.”