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High court weighs routine strip searches

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court seemed ready yesterday to endorse a policy that forces even people arrested on minor charges to undress and shower while being watched by guards.

Less clear was whether justices would decide jailers need a reason to suspect someone may be hiding a weapon or drugs before undertaking a more invasive strip search. The court heard arguments in a case weighing the privacy rights of people in jail against authorities' need to maintain safety.

The case involved Albert Florence, the finance manager for a New Jersey car dealership, who was arrested on a warrant for an unpaid fine. Florence said he was twice required by jail guards, who stood close by, to undress, open his mouth and lift his genitals. The second time, he also had to bend over and cough, in case he was hiding something inside his body.

Jail officials and the Obama administration back a policy that allows close searches of anyone entering the general jail population.

"What I would really like is an opinion that recognizes that deference to the prison and to their judgment is what's appropriate under these circumstances," Carter Phillips, the jails' lawyer, told the court.

Thomas Goldstein, representing Florence, said the court should draw a line that limits intrusion into privacy when there is no cause to suspect something is being hidden.

A state trooper pulled over Florence's BMW sport utility vehicle as they were headed to dinner with his mother-in-law in 2005. His wife, April, seven months pregnant, was driving. Their 4-year-old son was in the back seat.

"It's laugh-out-loud funny to think he is smuggling something into this jail," Goldstein said.

As happens often, the justices appeared more concerned with the wider implications of any decision they might reach than with the specifics of the case before them.

They focused on how close guards can get to naked inmates and how thorough searches can be. "He says 2 feet is too close, 5 feet or whatever is OK," Chief Justice John Roberts asked Phillips. "You want to go to 2 feet. You don't want to have to stand back to 6 feet. That's all the case comes down to?"

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