Stripped of Dignity by the Roberts Court

Last week, the Supreme Court's arch-conservatives made professions of deep concern for the right of the individual to be left alone from a government mandate to purchase insurance. Less than a week later, in yesterday's 5-4 Florence v. Board of Freeholders decision, the same arch-conservatives had no difficulty in approving the needless dehumanization by the government of completely innocent Americans by forcing them to endure the humiliation of unwarranted strip searches.

A New Jersey government database incorrectly stated that Albert Florence had failed to pay an old fine. When he was in a car that was pulled over by a state trooper, the trooper called up the (inaccurate) records and immediately handcuffed and arrested Florence. He was held in jail for seven days and strip-searched twice. As reported by NPR:

Florence said the experience "petrified" and "humiliated" him. Upon entering the jail, he was ordered to take a delousing shower, then inspected by a guard who was about "an arm's distance" away and instructed Florence to squat, cough and lift up his genitals.

Florence subsequently sued, contending that automatically strip-searching a person who is arrested for a minor offense violates the Constitution's ban on unreasonable searches.

But on Monday, the Supreme Court disagreed by a 5-4 vote. Writing for the court's conservative wing, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that jails are "often crowded, unsanitary, and dangerous places," and that, therefore, the courts must defer to the judgment of correctional officials in order to prevent new inmates from putting lives at risk with weapons or contraband that they may "carry in on their bodies."

So even the most minor of infractions can now trigger degrading strip searches. Justice Breyer's dissent describes other Americans forced to endure this degradation: a nun arrested for trespassing during an anti-war demonstration; people stopped for driving with a broken headlight or a noisy muffler; a driver who turned without signaling; and a bicyclist riding without a bell. And, of course, as Mr. Florence's case shows, the people forced to endure this may be completely innocent.

The five Justices have corrected the impression that the rest of us had that America isn't the sort of country where the government can arrest innocent people and force them to endure a humiliating strip search with no reason at all to suspect they are hiding anything.

Yet they were so respectful of Tea Partiers who don't want to buy health insurance, expressing deep concern about a fundamental change in the relationship between the American people and their government.

I think Mr. Florence would argue that the five conservatives have already made that change.

PFAW Foundation