Our justice system is based on the presumption of innocence. Our laws and practices bend over backward to protect those who have not been convicted of a crime. The belief, expressed in many variations, has been: "Better 10 guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer."
A recent 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling moves away from that principle. The court decided strip searches for people arrested for minor offenses are acceptable.
In the case before the court, a man was arrested for what law enforcement thought was an unpaid traffic fine. He was strip searched twice and held for six days in jail. What makes this even more egregious is the man had paid the fine and had evidence to prove it. He was the definition of an innocent made to suffer.
While not commenting on the specifics of the case or whether the man should even have been arrested, the court decided it was more important to give law enforcement what it felt was a necessary tool to keep jails free of weapons and drugs.
No one should dispute the need for safety in jails. But there was no probable cause in this case - or now in what will be countless cases - to believe the person being arrested had weapons, drugs or posed any kind of a threat to security.
Certainly it would be foolish not to search people arrested for even minor crimes. But there are far less intrusive methods that have been used very successfully for decades. It is prudent to do a pat-down, use metal detectors, have the person shower with delousing agents and search clothing.
That apparently isn't enough. Justice Anthony Kennedy said jailers must be able to ensure weapons and drugs aren't being brought in. He said it is important for jailers to search detainees for wounds, signs of disease or gang tattoos. Law enforcement doesn't need a reason to believe an individual poses a risk if he or she is being admitted into the general population, Kennedy stated.
So, if they are concerned about disease are they going to do blood tests to see if the person has HIV or AIDS? How about a chest X-ray to detect tuberculosis? Just where are Kennedy and the other four justices in the majority going to draw the line between protections for a person presumed innocent - and accused of a minor infraction - and what is reasonable to do to keep order in a jail?
One can only wonder what the justices' reactions would be if, through a misunderstanding over a minor infraction, they were arrested and forced to endure the indignity of a strip search. It might be instructional if the justices had to walk a mile in a detainee's shoes. But wait, they wouldn't have shoes in a strip search.