Opinion » Ted Rall

Stripped Down

Strip-searching is legal and democracy is dead



The text of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's majority is cold and bureaucratic. "Every detainee who will be admitted to the general population may be required to undergo a close visual inspection while undressed," he writes for the five right-wingers in the majority of the Supreme Court.

There's no looking back now. The United States is officially a police state.

Here are the basics, as reported by The New York Times: "The case decided Monday, Florence v. County of Burlington, No. 10-945, arose from the arrest of Albert W. Florence in New Jersey in 2005. Mr. Florence was in the passenger seat of his BMW when a state trooper pulled his wife, April, over for speeding. A records search revealed an outstanding warrant for Mr. Florence's arrest based on an unpaid fine. (The information was wrong; the fine had been paid.) Mr. Florence was held for a week in jails in Burlington and Essex counties, and he was strip-searched in each. There is some dispute about the details, but general agreement that he was made to stand naked in front of a guard who required him to move intimate parts of his body. The guards did not touch him."

"Turn around," Florence later recalled his jailers ordering him. "Squat and cough. Spread your cheeks."

A court motivated by fairness would have declared this conduct unconstitutional. Fair-minded people would have ordered the New Jersey municipality to empty its bank accounts and turn them over to the man it humiliated. Everyone involved--the police, county officials--ought to have been fired and charged with torture.

Not this court, the Supreme Court led by Justice John Roberts. Besotted by the sick logic of paranoia and preemption that has poisoned us since 9/11, it ruled that what happened to Albert Florence was perfectly OK. The cops' conduct was legal.

Now "officials may strip-search people arrested for any offense, however minor."

If you get arrested at an antiwar protest, the police can strip-search you. If you're pulled over for a minor traffic infraction, as was the plaintiff in this case. For setting off fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Humiliation is the law of the land.

The Court heard examples of people who were strip-searched "after being arrested for driving with a noisy muffler, failing to use a turn signal and riding a bicycle without an audible bell." They considered amicus briefs by nuns and other "women who were strip-searched during periods of lactation or menstruation."

Body-cavity searches are now legal for anyone arrested for any crime, no matter how minor. As of April 2, finger-rape is the law.

Think it won't happen to you? Fourteen million Americans are arrested annually. One in three Americans under age 23 has been arrested. It happened to me a couple of years ago, for a suspended drivers license. Except that it wasn't really suspended. I was lucky. My cops weren't perverts. They didn't want a lookie-loo at my private parts.

How did we get here? Preemptive logic. Saddam Hussein is a bad man. He hates the United States. What if he has weapons of mass destruction? What if he used them against us, or gave them to terrorists who would? Can't take that chance.

We don't need evidence in order to justify bombing and invading Iraq. We have fear and the logic of preemption.

The logic of preemption is indiscriminate. What if terrorists are stupid enough to use phones and emails to plot their dastardly schemes? We'd want to know, right? In the old days before 9/11, officials who suspected a person of criminal conduct went to a judge to obtain a wiretapping warrant.

Now we're paranoid. And the government is power-hungry. So government officials and their media lapdogs are exploiting our fear and paranoia, admitting that they listen to everyone's phone calls and read everyone's emails. Can't take chances.

What about the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures? Quaint relics of a time before the police state. Like the Geneva Conventions.

Here comes Justice Kennedy, amping up the perverse logic of preemption. Responding to the nasty cases of the finger-raped nun and the humiliated women on their period, Kennedy pointed out that "people detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals." Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, was pulled over for driving without a license plate. "One of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks was stopped and ticketed for speeding just two days before hijacking Flight 93," he wrote, continuing with the observation that San Francisco cops "have discovered contraband hidden in body cavities of people arrested for trespassing, public nuisance and shoplifting."

No doubt about it: If you search every car and frisk every pedestrian and break down the door of every house and apartment in America, you will find lots of people up to no good. You will discover meth labs and bombs and maybe even terrorists plotting to blow up things. But who is the bigger danger: a drug dealer, a terrorist, or a terrorist government?

This summer will be ugly. Cops will arrest thousands of protesters who belong to the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is fighting corruption and greed and trying to improve our lives. Now that police have the right to strip and molest demonstrators, you can count on horrible abuses. Cops always go too far.

I don't know about you, but I would rather live in a country that respects rights and freedoms more than the paranoid madness of preemption. In the old America where I grew up, we lived with the possibility that some individuals were evil. Now we face the absolute certainty that every policeman is a fully licensed finger-rapist.

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