Tenn. sheriffs hail high court strip-search ruling

The sheriff decided that every incoming detainee will be strip searched

By Brian Haas
The Tennessean

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Just days after the U.S. Supreme Court gave the OK for jailers to strip search anyone who's arrested — regardless of how minor their offense — the sheriff in Tipton County decided that every incoming detainee will be strip searched.

"It's not meant or intended to be degrading, it's meant to save lives," Tipton County Sheriff J.T. "Pancho" Chumley told WHBQ-TV FOX13 in Memphis.

Most major jails in the state have more nuanced strip-search policies, generally calling for them only in cases where there is reason to believe someone may be trying to conceal something. Sheriffs across the nation hailed the court decision as providing much-needed clarity and flexibility on the issue of strip searching the newly arrested.

The justices voted 5-4 that police had the authority to strip search a man mistakenly arrested for an unpaid fine.

Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall, who is also president of the American Correctional Association, has no plans to implement blanket strip searches, but he said "jails across the country need the ability to do that."

But many defense attorneys were appalled at what they saw as a dangerous and demeaning erosion of civil rights.

"I think it's outrageous, I think it's an affront to human dignity. I can't believe that people in Tipton County want to be strip searched," said Patrick Frogge, a criminal defense and civil-rights attorney in Nashville. "A housewife gets pulled over because she has not paid a traffic ticket - or because a computer mistakenly says she didn't pay it — and she's going to be strip searched like a terrorist."

Tennessee gives broad leeway in how sheriffs determine when strip searches are allowed. The Tennessee Corrections Institute, which sets up minimum standards for the state's jails, says only that jailers should have written policies outlining under which circumstances such searches shall be made.

Davidson, Rutherford and Wilson counties have typical policies. In general, jailers there can perform them if there is reason to believe a detainee is hiding drugs or a weapon or has a history of introducing contraband to jails.

Jailer safety
The Supreme Court decision centered around a New Jersey man arrested on a warrant for unpaid fines. Albert Florence, who worked as a finance manager at a car dealership, had actually paid the fines and the warrant was in error.

The court's ruling placed jail officers' safety above detainee privacy concerns.

In the dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer called strip searches a "serious affront to human dignity and to individual privacy."

"Such a search of an individual arrested for a minor offense that does not involved drugs or violence - say a traffic offense, a regulatory offense, an essentially civil matter, or any other such misdemeanor - is an 'unreasonable search' forbidden by the Fourth Amendment, unless prison authorities have reasonable suspicion to believe that the individual possesses drugs or other contraband," he wrote.

Hall said that he sees no need for a blanket stripsearch policy because detainees must shower and change clothes before they are booked into jail.

"I think that's a much better way to accomplish the goal than to pay staff to search 100-plus people a day," he said.

Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold said he saw no need to change his policy either. He said his office performs strip searches several times a day and they do turn up contraband.

"Strip searches are done where reasonable suspicion exists or where an inmate leaves the secure area and returns, leaves their housing unit and returns, or has direct contact with a member of the public,'' Arnold said.

Wilson County Sheriff Terry Ashe said his policy will also remain unchanged.

"Common sense would tell you you don't have to strip search everybody who comes in," Ashe said. He was pleased that the court decision gave jailers more latitude, but is comfortable with his current policies. "As long as I'm sheriff, it's only going to be done when we feel like it's a real necessity. I'm not going to step it up just because I can.''

Some skepticism
Jerry Gonzalez, a civilrights attorney who often handles cases on behalf of detainees and inmates, said he understands the desire to protect guards and other inmates from contraband. But still, he was uncomfortable with the Supreme Court decision and skeptical that it would tamp down on contraband.

"Historically and empirically, guards are a large source of contraband introduction," he said.

Gary Antrican, Tipton County's public defender, was similarly conflicted.

"I do have reservations if they strip search everybody. If they are going to put them in jail and there's not a better alternative - metal detectors or X-rays - and they're going to put them in population, I don't have a problem," Antrican said. "I think there are probably other alternatives to strip searching which might be faster, save time and be just as safe."

Arnold said that most of those alternatives are too time or cost-intensive to be practical and that the strip searches perform a valuable function for guards and inmates alike. "We not only have a responsibility to protect staff, but a legal obligation to protect the inmates in our custody, whether it be from weapons entering our facility or narcotics entering our facility or any other dangerous contraband," he said. "The necessity for security and safety of the jail is of the utmost importance."

Copyright 2012 Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.
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