EDITORIALS

Strip Searching on Trial

Posted Oct. 07, 2011, at 6:07 p.m.
Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison
Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison

Knox County’s Sheriff, Donna Dennison, has a big problem. People keep trying to smuggle illegal drugs and weapons into the jail, endangering her, the jailers and the inmates. Yet federal and state restrictions limit strip searches. Federal lawsuits by two women charging that their searches violated the Fourth Amendment dragged on for years until they were finally settled with hefty payments.

In what sounded like a cry for help, Sheriff Dennison put out a press release two weeks ago. She cited a recent discovery that a woman inmate had concealed narcotic pills in a “body cavity” and went on to say that more drugs are getting into the jail because of restrictive court rulings. She wrote:

“Many of the people going into our jail are drug users. They know they are not going to be strip searched so they easily [pack] drugs into their body cavities and walk right into the jail. More drugs make it in than are found. It is only a matter of time before weapons are smuggled in because our searches are restricted. It is definitely a safety issue.”

She said, “We’ll get by. We’re doing OK.” Her website states her dual responsibility: “The men and women of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office are dedicated to safeguarding life and property, protecting the innocent and respecting the constitutional rights of all with liberty, equality and justice.”

It’s not just Knox County that has this trouble. Drugs are everywhere, and this year bath salts are added to the deadly mix. Addicts in jail want them. Their friends inside and out are trying to help them. Even some prison guards can be bribed into helping. Smuggling is a daily threat. People hide drugs between their toes, in their armpits and, harder to find, in the places known as “body cavities.” Inside, they can lead to illness, uprisings, fights, death and now the violent effects of bath salts.

Yet it seems obviously unfair to inspect the genitals of someone arrested for failure to pay a cable fee or license a dog.

Current laws, regulations and court decisions seem inadequate to cope with the rising tide of contraband entering prisons while respecting the Fourth Amendment guarantee against “unreasonable search and seizure.”

A case on strip search that has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court may revise the requirements and should make it easier for law enforcement officials like Dennison to do their jobs.

The plaintiff, Albert Florence, of Bordertown, N.J., was arrested in 2004 when his wife, the driver, was pulled over for speeding. Police cited an outstanding warrant for an unpaid fine. He was held for seven days and strip searched twice and then released after it was learned that the fine had already been paid.

A friend-of-the-court brief by Peter T. Marchesi of Waterville, counsel for Knox and other counties, argues that “a jail policy that permits a blanket strip search of all arrestees upon intake is constitutional.” Many will disagree.

He asks that the court “provide clear guidance to corrections officials throughout the country.”

Let’s hope so. It’s high time.

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