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Associated Press : Lask's Strip Search Case to be Heard by Third Circuit

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Appeals Panel To Consider NJ Strip-Search Case
DAVID PORTER, Associated Press Writer

April 14, 2010

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) ― The constitutionality of strip searches in jails is to be considered by a federal appeals panel this week in a lawsuit that has drawn support from five of the state's former attorneys general.

The case was brought on behalf of southern New Jersey resident Albert Florence, who claimed he was strip-searched at county jails in Burlington and Essex counties in 2005 after being erroneously arrested for not paying a traffic fine. His attorney is seeking damages for thousands of people who claim they have had similar experiences. A federal judge in New Jersey ruled in favor of Florence last year.

In court filings, attorneys representing both counties say the strip searches are allowed under a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, though lower courts have ruled in subsequent cases that the searches are unconstitutional in some circumstances.

The case is scheduled to be argued Thursday before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.

The former state attorneys general — Robert Del Tufo, Deborah Poritz, John Farmer Jr., Peter Harvey and Zulima Farber, all of whom served between 1990 and 2006 — filed a friend-of-the-court brief in January that supported the New Jersey judge's ruling.

"The court's narrow holding in this case does not prevent a strip search when the charges (such as felonies, drug crimes, and gun crimes) suggest the presence of contraband or when circumstances otherwise create reasonable suspicion," the former AGs wrote.

Guidelines adopted by the New Jersey attorney general's office in the 1990s allow strip searches if a person has been arrested for a felony or if there is a reasonable suspicion he or she could be hiding some form of contraband.

Florence didn't meet either criterion when he was arrested, according to Susan Chana Lask, his attorney.