At the conclusion of oral arguments on Wednesday, pundits were left guessing whether the Supreme Court would declare that Americans’ constitutional right to privacy bars prison officials from strip searching them if and when they are jailed for minor, nonviolent offenses. The case, Florence v. Bd. of Freeholders, explores both the breadth and depth of an individual’s Fourth Amendment privacy right and is widely considered to be one of the most important cases the Court will hear this term.
At oral arguments, Thomas Goldstein, a lawyer for the petitioner, struggled to articulate precisely the procedure he was asserting to be unconstitutional. To some justices’ surprise, Goldstein conceded that if prison guards observed inmates disrobe from across the room, their actions would not violate the Constitution. Rather, the constitutionality of a search hinged on the proximity between the guard and the inmate during a nude inspection. “Are you suggesting,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor interjected, “[i]t’s okay to stand five feet away, but not two?” Goldstein would not answer “how close is too close”; however, he affirmed that the constitutional violation in the case arose from the guards’ close proximity to the petitioner while searching him.
Several of the justices seemed surprised by other concessions Goldstein made during oral arguments. For instance, Goldstein suggested that a policy whereby close-range strip searches were performed by medical professionals would be constitutional. “If you’re examined close up by someone who has a medical degree, it’s okay?” Justice Antonin Scalia questioned. “And on the other hand, if it’s someone who does not have a medical degree, it’s not okay?” Goldstein answered affirmatively. Justice Scalia stated that he failed to see Goldstein’s distinction.
Carter Phillips, counsel for the prisons, also received some pointed questions from the bench. A number of justices expressed their skepticism that the prisons had an interest in subjecting all inmates – even those charged with only minor offenses – to close-range strip searches. Justice Stephen Breyer referred Phillips to studies showing no increase in contraband discovered when prison officials moved from a policy whereby guards strip searched all inmates upon entering the facility to one in which guards were required to have “reasonable suspicion” before a search. “I understand contraband is serious,” Justice Sotomayor explained. “But most of the studies point to it not being on intake, but coming in through guards, coming in through contact visits. The great cause today is that from corrupt correction officials.” Phillips countered, asking the Court to rely on its “common sense,” not scientific studies.