Bay State sheriffs and legal experts are weighing the impact of a recent Supreme Court ruling that upheld the legality of strip-searching people admitted to the general population of a jail, regardless of their criminal past or charges against them.


 

Bay State sheriffs and legal experts are weighing the impact of a recent Supreme Court ruling that upheld the legality of strip-searching people admitted to the general population of a jail, regardless of their criminal past or charges against them.


County jails, unlike houses of correction or state prisons, generally hold people charged with a crime who await trials or other court appearances, but have not been convicted.


The main question is if the court ruling gives sheriffs new leeway to strip search people awaiting an arraignment, their first appearance before a judge after being arrested.


Jails routinely strip search people held while awaiting trials when admitting them to the general population. But most jails strip search detainees before arraignment only if authorities have probable cause to believe they are hiding weapons or contraband.


Civil liberties attorneys said previous court rulings set this standard in the Bay State. Sheriffs differ on whether the new Supreme Court decision changes that, but lawyers warned the state’s own constitution may hold jailers to a higher standard.


“If I were running a jail, I would not take this opinion as telling me I can go ahead and do these strip searches,” said Laura Rotolo, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.


Sheriffs’ departments applauded the Supreme Court ruling, which appears to uphold their existing strip search policies, yet most said they do not plan to expand strip searches.


Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings said he would watch for state court rulings to clarify the Supreme Court decision’s impact before considering any changes. 


But Norfolk County Sheriff Michael Bellotti he planned to meet with the superintendent who manages his jail operations soon to decide whether to change strip search procedures in light of the ruling.


“These offenders are still constitutionally protected, but we are getting greater latitude on these types of issues than we’ve had in 10, 15 years,” Bellotti said.


Bellotti said the decision appears to give his office the right to strip search even detainees awaiting arraignment on criminal charges, a step that he said could better eliminate the risk of weapons or drugs entering the county jail.


“It’s our stance that we’re protected by this new ruling,” Bellotti said.


He said he would not seek to strip search people held on civil charges.


The Supreme Court ruling is narrower than it might seem at first glance, Rotolo said.


For starters, it applies only to jails or prisons. Unaffected by the ruling are towns and cities that hold prisoners in cells at local police stations until their arraignment.


That’s how most larger communities deal with arrests, sheriffs said. In such cases, suspects may never set foot in jail if freed or released on bail after arraignment.


But in eastern Massachusetts, smaller towns in Barnstable, Bristol, Essex, Norfolk, Plymouth and Worcester counties sometimes rely on jails to hold prisoners if space at the local station is tight, or the department does not have enough staff to supervise arrestees.


Even then, some sheriffs said the practice is rare. Bellotti estimated it comes up five to 10 times a week in Norfolk County. In Middlesex County, Sheriff Peter Koutoujian said his facilities do not house anyone who has yet to be arraigned.


Even sheriffs who hold pre-arraignment detainees said they are generally kept separate from other prisoners who await trial or are serving sentences.


“Most of them were not putting people who’d just been arrested or awaiting their first court appearance in the general population,” said Howard Friedman, a civil rights attorney who has filed lawsuits over strip searches in at least four counties.


The Supreme Court ruling only dealt with cases where prisoners are kept in a jail’s general population, Rotolo said.


The federal case centered on a New Jersey man, Albert Florence, strip-searched in two county jails after police arrested him on an outdated warrant for failing to pay a court-ordered fine. He had in fact paid the fine and was later released without charges.


Florence sued, arguing people arrested for minor offenses should not be strip-searched without cause.


In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled anyone held in the general population of a detention facility may be subject to a “close visual inspection while undressed.”


Prisoners cannot be touched, but may be asked to move body parts or change positions.


The court’s majority said a prisoner’s criminal record and the severity of charges are little indication of whether he or she carries something dangerous or banned. Rotolo disagreed.


“To have a blanket policy where anyone arrested on any charge gets to be put through this humiliating and degrading experience just goes too far,” she said.


Sheriffs defended the widespread practice of strip searching prisoners who await trial and are admitted to the general population, arguing the practice helps protect inmates, staff and visitors.


“The issue is not why did you come in,” said Worcester County Sheriff Lew Evangelidis. “The issue is where you are going.”


In Middlesex County, Koutoujian said sheriffs have been waiting for further guidance on strip searches.


“I know that these searches are a significant factor in security and safety in all of our institutions,” he said. “These policies save lives.”


Friedman said a 1999 Supreme Judicial Court ruling established that authorities need probable cause to justify strip searches of arrestees. That makes Massachusetts different from some other states, he said.


Rotolo said the ACLU of Massachusetts would monitor the Supreme Court ruling’s effect in Massachusetts.


“We would tend to agree with the dissenting opinions that these kinds of strip searches get at the heart of personal liberty,” she said. “ There really has not been a compelling showing that in every situation, every jail needs to carry out these strip searches.”


(David Riley can be reached at 508-626-4424 or driley@wickedlocal.com.)