Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Inmate cannot challenge flashlight strip search

As I write this, the Supreme Court is deciding when prison officials can strip search incoming prisoners. But some areas of strip search law are so settled that the Court of Appeals does not have to wait for the Supreme Court to decide that case.

The case is Perez v. New York State Department of Corrections, a summary order decided on January 13. Perez and other plaintiffs were locked up in the Big House. Under Bell v. Wolfish (1979), the Supreme Court said that inmates may be strip searched after having contact visits with outsiders. This is to make sure that family and friends do not slip in contraband while meeting with the inmate. These searches are legal if they are reasonable. The demeaning nature of these searches is outweighed by the need for prison safety.

"Reasonabless" in the prison context means that anything goes so long as prison officials have some kind of rationale for the intrusion. Anyone who handles cases like this will tell you that. In this case, the plaintiffs cannot win. The Court of Appeals (Hall, Chin and Hellerstein [D.J.]) says, "The searches at issue here were not rendered unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment or qualitatively different from the searches at issue in Bell by the de minimis additional intrusions that required the appellants to expose their anal cavities twice during a single search and use of a flashlight to aid in the visual inspection." The plaintiffs also argue that prison officers used the flashlight solely to humiliate them. This will not fly. Under Supreme Court precedent, the officers win the case if their actions are objectively reasonable, even if they were subjectively motivated by bad reasons.

No comments: