Could a Few Drinks After Work Lead to a Strip Search in the County Jail?

As if otherwise law-abiding citizens didn’t already have enough to worry about if they are arrested for driving while intoxicated now motorists can face being strip-searched as well. We’ve spoken on numerous occasions how a drunk driving arrest — or worse, a conviction — has the potential for personal humiliation in the local community, at one’s job and even within one’s own family. Personal relationships, careers, and reputations have been ruined as a result of a DWI or drug-related DUI.

But the recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last month has opened up new possibilities for individuals arrested and incarcerated following a drunken driving arrest. While some may laugh, could it be such a stretch to imagine an average citizen, perhaps coming home from an evening get-together at the local bar with colleagues and friends, ending up arrested for drunk driving and ultimately being strip-searched prior to spending a night in the local jail? All we can say is, The truth can certainly be stranger than fiction.

Of course, we wouldn’t even be talking about this potentially embarrassing scenario if it wasn’t for the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that anyone in police custody can be strip-searched without, apparently, violating their constitutional rights. As New Jersey DUI defense lawyers, we have said for years that the stiff monetary penalties defendants face in the wake of a DWI conviction are just one aspect of the entire drunken driving arrest scenario. Now drivers have even more to worry about if they have had a little too much to drink.

Granted, drinking and driving is a dangerous past-time that nobody should take lightly. But there are times when a motorist is falsely accused of DWI or DUI. For this reason alone, individuals arrested for operating a motor vehicle under the influence of beer, wine, hard liquor or even marijuana deserve the chance to defend themselves in a court of law.

Having served a municipal prosecutor for many years, I have had first-hand experience with the different kinds of individuals who make their way through our justice system. I also understand that police and other law enforcement personnel place their lives on the line every day handling some of the more dangerous criminals to keep our society safe. What is difficult to reconcile is the lumping in of average citizens whose worst crime may be a traffic offense with those who may have been accused of rape, murder and armed robbery, among other serious offenses.

What led to this latest Supreme Court decision was lawsuit following the 2005 arrest of a Garden State driver who was arrested by police after the car in which he was riding was stopped for speeding — the driver was his wife. According to reports, the man, who was only a passenger in the vehicle, was held for six days by police, during which time he was strip-searched twice. The reason for his incarceration, according to police art the time, was because of an outstanding warrant for an unpaid fine; later determined to be in error.

This man, Albert Florence, then sued the state based on his treatment, arguing that the strip searches were a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights unreasonable search and seizure. Unfortunately for Mr. Florence, and civil rights advocates nationwide, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 against.

It could be a sign of the times, but Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority stated that corrections officers a “legitimate interest, indeed a responsibility, to ensure that jails are not made less secure by reason of what new detainees may carry on their bodies.” According to earlier news reports, an inmate at the jail Mr. Florence was being held at had previously smuggled a loaded gun into the facility. There is obviously a balance that needs to be kept, but in this case, it is possible that things just got a bit more uncomfortable for the “small-time” offender.

Our View: Supreme Court to America: Time to disrobe; PJStar.com, April 3, 2012