Posted on Apr 04, 2012

The United States Supreme Court held on Monday that defendants in traffic stops and "petty criminal offenses" can be strip searched in county jails in New Jersey! This ruling should be a warning to everyone driving through the Garden State of the seriousness of these offenses and the consequences of not recognizing that. The facts of the case speak for themselves.

The Facts

The defendant was arrested during a traffic stop by a New Jersey State Trooper who discovered a bench warrant issued for his arrest after he failed to appear at a hearing to enforce a fine. He was initially detained in the Burlington County Detention Center and later in the Essex County Correctional Facility, but was released once it was determined that the fine had been paid. The defendant was subjected to strip searches at both jails.

The Lawsuit

He subsequently filed a civil rights claim in federal court against the government entities that ran the jails and other defendants, arguing that people arrested for minor offenses cannot be subjected to invasive searches unless prison officials have reason to suspect concealment of weapons, drugs, or other contraband. The court granted him summary judgment, ruling that “strip-searching” nonindictable offenders without reasonable suspicion violates the Fourth Amendment . On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed the ruling, and said reversal was then upheld by the Supreme Court.

The Ruling

The court commented that a regulation impinging on an inmate’s constitutional rights must be upheld “if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” This could be in situations where the inspections served to discover and deter the smuggling of weapons, drugs, and other prohibited items. The correctional officials must be permitted to devise reasonable search policies to detect and deter the possession of contraband in their facilities.

The court went on to say that the defendant's proposal that new detainees not arrested for serious crimes or for offenses involving weapons or drugs be exempt from invasive searches unless they give officers a particular reason to suspect them of hiding contraband is unworkable. The seriousness of an offense is a poor predictor of who has contraband, said the court, and it would be difficult to determine whether individual detainees fall within the proposed exemption.

The Warning

Wow! This decision can have serious implications for drivers in New Jersey. Let's say you received a reckless driving and driving while revoked ticket, but failed to appear on the court date. The judge then issues a bench warrant for your arrest and sets bail. You are then driving on the Turnpike a few months later and are stopped because of some minor infraction like a broken tail light. When the trooper runs your license the warrant comes up, and you are arrested. Since it is 2am, and no one can come pick you up or post bail, so you end up in county jail being strip searched!

If you have an old, outstanding southern New Jersey traffic ticket haunting your past, it is best that you take care of it right away to avoid down the (side of the) road. Call my office at 856-432-4113 or contact me through this site to schedule an appointment to discuss it. These tickets are serious, and you need to take them seriously!

Steven J. Richardson
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Bankruptcy, Collections, Student Loan, DUI and Traffic Court attorney in Woodbury, NJ.