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Courier Post | News Editorial Supports Lask's Class Action

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May 30, 2010

by Mike Daniels  Opinion Editor

No strip searches for minor infractions

Jails shouldn't strip search everyone who walks in the door; it's not necessary.

You get pulled over for not wearing a seat belt or having a tail light out. The police officer puts your information in the system and discovers there's an old warrant for you -- some parking ticket in another town you didn't pay years ago and forgot about. Next thing you know, you're under arrest. Before even getting a chance to see a judge for an initial hearing that could resolve the matter, you're taken to the county jail where the first thing officers do is force you to take off all your clothes so they can examine your body for gang tattoos or hidden weapons.

"It's degrading, dehumanizing and it definitely violates people's constitutional rights," according to attorney Susan Chana Lask, the attorney on a class action lawsuit against Burlington and Essex counties, where her plaintiffs were wrongly strip-searched for minor, non-indictable offenses at those counties' jails. A U.S. district court judge agreed with Lask's assertion that her clients' Fourth Amendment rights to privacy and protection from unreasonable searches were violated.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia heard oral arguments in April from Lask and from the two counties. The court will determine whether the U.S. Constitution and prior court decisions give jail officials the power to conduct strip searches on anyone who's arrested and brought in.

Regardless of how the three-judge panel rules, jail officials across the state should know better than to subject everyone who is processed and brought to jail -- no matter their infraction -- to a strip search. It is a clear deprivation of people's right to privacy and a thoroughly degrading experience that seems without just cause when the person being strip searched poses no danger and is in on a small infraction.

Earlier this year, five former New Jersey attorneys general -- Deborah Poritz, John Farmer, Zulima Farber, Peter Harvey and Robert Del Tufo -- came out in support of Lask's class action lawsuit saying just that. They wrote, in a document submitted to the court formally supporting Lask's lawsuit, that while jail officials have a need to strip search suspects coming into the jail when there is "reasonable suspicion" that they could pose a danger, that doesn't mean they should strip search everyone, a practice that results in what they dubbed "needless humiliation."

The bottom line is that jail officials across New Jersey must use common sense and have a regard for common decency when they decide who to strip search. People who have not committed a serious crime and aren't likely to stay long in the jail don't deserve to be thrown into a room and forced to strip down while officers (and other inmates, in Essex County's case) watch.

There is a balance that must be struck between safety within the jails and people's right to privacy. Jail policies on strip searches in Burlington, Essex and every other county in New Jersey should strive to achieve that balance and put sensible limits on the use of strip searches.