Court allows strip searches at jails
PHILADELPHIA — Any arrested person can be strip-searched upon admission to a jail, no matter how minor their alleged offense, a divided appeals court said Tuesday.
The 2-1 ruling overturned a decision by a federal judge in Camden, who had previously found body exams at Burlington County Jail and another facility violated the rights of people held for minor offenses.
The lower-court decision, issued last year by U.S. District Judge Joseph Rodriguez, had exposed Burlington County to potential damages that could reach into the millions of dollars.
“We’re pleased,” Ralph Shrom, a Burlington County spokesman, said Tuesday. “We’ve always felt our search policy was reasonable and that we followed the proper protocol at the jail. This ruling substantiates that.”
He noted that, while Burlington County had appealed the adverse ruling, other counties settled similar class-action lawsuits out of court. Camden County in 2005 agreed to pay $7.5 million to several thousand people who’d been searched at its jail, and Gloucester County agreed to pay $4 million last year.
Susan Chana Lask, the attorney whose clients were strip-searched at Burlington County Jail after arrests for non-indictable offenses, said she will pursue an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It’s a sad day . . . to now know that when you’re brought in for your car taillight being out, you’re getting strip searched,” said Lask, noting that other courts had ruled against “blanket” searches.
“The Supreme Court has never decided this issue, and must give us an answer,” she said.
The lawsuit was filed in 2005 by Albert Florence, who was arrested while riding in a car in Burlington County. Florence said he was imprisoned for more than six days over a traffic fine he had already paid in Essex County.
During that time, Florence said, he was strip-searched twice — once when arriving at Burlington County Jail and again when he was transferred to Essex County Jail. His suit also names Essex County officials and that county’s jail.
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