2012 Supreme Court Search Rulings

The United States Supreme Court has issued two rulings this spring on the government's ability to conduct searches. One decision - concerning use of GPS devices to track suspects - sets limits on law enforcement's authority to place people under extended surveillance. The other decision, however, grants the government extensive leeway in performing searches of jail inmates.

U.S. v. Jones

The case of U.S. v. Jones arises from the arrest of Antoine Jones in 2005 on charges of drug trafficking. The FBI and Washington, D.C., police had attached a GPS device to Jones's vehicle for 28 days as a way to keep track of his movements, all of this done without a search warrant.

After Jones was convicted and given a life sentence, he appealed, arguing that attaching the GPS device without a warrant was an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Jones. The justices, however, split into two camps. The majority said that the attachment of a GPS device for an extended period of time constituted a "physical intrusion" and a trespass that is prohibited by the Fourth Amendment unless a warrant is obtained. A second opinion, agreeing with the decision but using a different rationale, said that the use of the GPS unit amounted to a violation of privacy. Regardless of the legal justifications, this ruling provides important protections against government surveillance in this electronic age.

Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of Burlington County

The Court's ruling in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of Burlington County, however, moves in the opposite direction, granting the government great latitude in conducting strip searches of inmates.

This case concerns Albert Florence, a finance director at an automotive dealership, who in 2005 was a passenger in the BMW being driven by his wife. A New Jersey state trooper pulled them over for speeding. When a records check indicated that Florence had an outstanding warrant for an unpaid fine, Florence was placed under arrest and transported to the local jail facility for booking. (Florence had actually paid the fine already.)

Twice during the six days that Florence was incarcerated, he was subjected to a strip search. After finally being released, he sued the two counties in which he was detained, claiming that law enforcement has engaged in unreasonable searches and violated his privacy.

The Supreme Court's slim majority opinion, unfortunately, did not agree with Florence. The five majority justices focused on the need for police to ensure a safe environment in jail facilities and the difficulty of determining who might be a threat. They found unworkable the solution suggested by Florence - that strip searches be limited to those detainees arrested for serious offenses or crimes involving weapons, and that all other detainees should be exempt from strip searches unless they give law enforcement personnel some reason to suspect they have contraband on their person. The four dissenting justices, however, saw unlimited, indiscriminate use of strip searches for people arrested and jailed as unreasonable searches in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

California is one of at least ten states that already place limits on strip searches.