United States Supreme Court Grants Petition to Hear Constitutionality of Prison Strip Searches on Non-Criminal Offenses

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In 2005, Albert Florence of New Jersey was held for 7 days in Burlington County Jail, then held in the Essex County Prison and strip searched twice; once in a group setting, directed to squat and cough and manipulate his genitals naked before strangers for a court fine he was not liable for, as reported in depositions during the case. Now, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Mr. Florence's attorney's, Susan Chana Lask's, Petition on the issue of whether the Fourth Amendment protects us from blanket prison strip searches on non-criminal offenses without the prison first establishing reasonable suspicion.

I took an oath as an attorney to defend our constitution, and I will never stop defending our civil rights because that makes us the United States. We must be proud to be Americans and return to basic values-truth, justice and the pursuit of happiness.

On April 4, 2011 the United States Supreme Court granted Certiorari in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders (No. 10-945). On January 14, 2011, New York attorney Susan Chana Lask filed a Petition for Certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court for her client Albert Florence to decide the issue whether the Fourth Amendment permits jails to conduct suspicion-less strip searches whenever an individual is arrested for minor offenses. Such offenses include traffic tickets, failure to pay a fine or violating a dog leash law.

In 2005, Susan Chana Lask filed a class action complaint in the District Court of New Jersey (Camden) Case No. 05-3619 (JHR) for her client Albert Florence and all those persons blanket strip searched in jails for non-criminal offenses, such as traffic tickets and failure to pay a fine. The District Court appointed Ms, Lask class counsel and certified the class, but for 6 long years litigation continued on the false arrest as alleged in the Complaint, to finally get to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The saga began when, as alleged in the complaint filed in Camden County New Jersey District Court, Florence v. Burlington, et al., Case No. 05-3619 (JHR), in 2004 Mr. Florence was falsely arrested, imprisoned for 7 days and strip searched twice during his imprisonment for a minor court fine he already paid. As alleged in the Complaint, and as discovered during depositions, this occurred because a false warrant from Essex County was generated against him. So one nice afternoon, while he and his pregnant wife and four year old son were driving their BMW SUV home from a family dinner in Burlington County, they were pulled over for allegedly speeding. Mr. Florence was a passenger in the car. At depositions it was confirmed that instead of issuing a speeding ticket, the officers claimed there was a warrant for Mr. Florence's arrest. They arrested him in front of his four-year-old son and hauled away without any information to his wife, April. For days, April pleaded with officials in Burlington County and Essex County to release her husband. The Complaint further alleges that the clerks ignored her or directed her somewhere else because they did not want to handle it. After 7 days, two strip searches and refusing him a shower, soap or toothbrush and shackling him to murderers and rapists, an Essex County Judge realized the mistake and released Mr. Florence. As stated by Mr. Florence, the release was way too late and the harm so dehumanizing, the release will never repair what Mr. Florence and his family went through. To this day, as Mr. Florence explains, whenever his son sees a police officer he says "Daddy, are you going to jail?"

In depositions during the case, and as reported by the Courthouse News Service - ABA Journal, the
Philadelphia Inquirer and the Star Ledger on April 4 and 5, 2011, among other media, Albert Florence detailed what he experienced at both jails. He explained that in Burlington they brought him to a shower room with a curtain that did not close all the way. Albert saw people pass by and look in the room while an an officer about a foot from him sat in a chair ordering Albert to remove all of his clothes, strip naked, turn around with his arms spread wide, spread his "cheeks", squat and cough, run his hands through his hair while naked and manipulate his genitals in front of this strange man, with a curtain they did not care to close to protect at least some privacy. If that was not bad enough, as Mr. Florence explained, about 6 days later Essex County picked him up, shackled him to murderers and rapists and brought him to an even far more dehumanizing fate. There he was brought to a larger room where officers and inmates were at desks and walking in and out of the room while Albert was ordered to strip naked with a group of men. They all removed their clothes, stood naked together, were ordered to squat and cough, spread their "cheeks" and manipulate their genitals. Albert described the incident as "an out of body experience." He explained that for 7 days of false imprisonment with two strip searches, he saw his life flash before him, thinking he would never see his wife and child again. Depositions confirm that he was a finance manager of a car dealership, he just purchased a home for his family, and was about 32-years-old when he was imprisoned and dehumanized for something he never did. In fact, Mr. Florence confirms that his wife suffered a premature labor from the entire incident as she fought for 7 days to find her husband that the prison system basically disappeared him, when they had no right in the first place according to the law and as discovered in depositions.

More concerning to Mr. Florence is New Jersey has a law mandating arrestees be brought before a magistrate in 72 hours. N.J. Ct. R. 3:4-l(b) (bail must be set for persons arrested pursuant to a warrant "without unnecessary delay, and no later than 12 hours after arrest"); id. R. 3:4-2(a) (if a detainee remains in custody, he "shall be brought before a judge for a first appearance... within 72 hours after arrest, excluding holidays). During the case and in news interviews, the prisons fail to explain why they did not bring Mr. Florence to a magistrate to at least make bail and get released before being strip searched twice and left for 7 days.

"I can explain. The system is failing us like everything else because there are no checks and balances and we as citizens are sitting back and doing nothing. Courts are falling apart. Parks are closing. People need to get back to the '60's and stand up for our rights, not wait for our country to crumble. If we need to protest then lets do that. Otherwise,we have one man, Albert Florence, who had to go to jail and suffer to protect everyone else. If we do not unite and stand up for our rights then this is not the United States--it is the Un-united States," says Susan Chana Lask.

In 2008, Senior District Court Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez ,Case No. 05-3619 (JHR), agreed with Ms. Lask and held it was unconstitutional for prisons to strip search non-criminal arrestees. In 2010, Defendants appealed to the Third Circuit. There Ms. Lask received amicus brief support from five former New Jersey Attorneys General, Robert J. Del Tufo, Deborah T. Poritz, John J. Farmer Jr., Peter C. Harvey and Zulima V. Farber stating the strip searches on non-criminal arrestees are unconstitutional and violate the every Attorney General guidelines they set forth for years.

On September 21, 2010, the Third Circuit ruled in a published decision at 621 F.3d 29 that although a split in the circuits exists regarding the constitutionality of blanket strip searching without a reasonable basis, they deferred to the minority of two Circuits, the 9th and 11th, that recently overruled themselves and now permit blanket strips searches. The Third Circuit joined the minority and ruled blanket strip searches are constitutional. In that decisions, Third Circuit Judge Pollack dissented, stating “The majority sweeps away twenty-five years of jurisprudence, giving jailors the unfettered right to conduct mandatory, routine, suspicion-less body cavity searches on any citizen who may be arrested for minor offenses, such as violating a leash law or a traffic code, and who pose no credible risk for smuggling contraband into the jail.”

"For 25 years this Country did not tolerate blanket strip searches of non-criminal arrestees. This started with the case of Bell v. Wolfish,441 U.S. 520 (1979), where the Supreme Court there held there must be "reasonable suspicion" before stripping non-criminal arrestees. Now, 25 years later, until the Supreme Court decides this constitutional issue, we have to worry that when your grandmother forgets to pay her traffic ticket or your daughter has her taillight out, they're going to be hauled to jail and without any reason ordered to strip in front of strangers, squat and cough and be forever humiliated. That's torture, not prison security; and that's not what our constitution is about," says Susan Chana Lask. "What's next, we forget to pay our cable bill, get a judgment and get strip searched for failing to pay the cable bill judgment?" asks Lask.

Ms. Lask is admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court. She carefully formed her team for this case with the prestigious Stanford University Supreme Court Law Clinic and Supreme Court litigator Thomas Goldstein, Esq. of Goldstein, Howe & Russell. "I am proud of my team and I knew when I picked them I have the most brilliant minds for our future from Stanford Law School and Tom Goldstein, a sophisticated Supreme Court litigator," says Lask.


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