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Strip search decision is tested in Wisconsin case

A few months ago, the United States Supreme Court announced its holding in a case entitled, "Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington." In its ruling, the Court upholds the right of law enforcement to subject those arrested for any offense, including minor property and drug crimes, to a strip search before being temporarily or permanently incarcerated.

The Court reasoned that law enforcement is better suited than judicial officers to determine when it might be appropriate to strip search inmates for reasons of public safety and/or concerns about the smuggling of contraband into jails or other incarceration facilities.

Recently, practical application of this holding raised concern in a case involving a Wisconsin detainee. The man alleged that a guard working at a Wisconsin county jail "gratuitously fondled" him while performing a strip search. The man filed a federal civil action claiming that his rights were infringed upon. He is seeking damages for the psychological harm done to him during the search.

Though law enforcement has the right to strip search inmates, it does not have the right to fondle or otherwise abuse detainees in the process. Though summary judgment was originally granted for the guard, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has remanded the case for trial.

In its decision, the appeals panel wrote that, "An unwanted touching of a person's private parts, intended to humiliate the victim or gratify the assailant's sexual desires, can violate a prisoner's constitutional rights whether or not the 'force' exerted by the assailant is significant."

The "Florence" case allows law enforcement to strip search detainees at its discretion upon their entrance to incarceration facilities. However, law enforcement may not abuse this power. Hopefully, this Wisconsin case will serve to highlight this fact, for the benefit of detainees across the nation.

Source: State Bar of Wisconsin, "Federal Court Sides with Detainee in Strip Search Case from Wisconsin," Joe Forward, Aug. 21, 2012

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