Living with risk

The Supreme Court decided this week that prison authorities are completely justified in strip-searching someone who was arrested because of an unpaid traffic fine (which, it turned out, he didn’t owe).
The rationale, for several of the justices, including Alito, was that no matter how trivial the offense, the guy could be packing heat or have stuffed the drugs he just happened to be carrying into his underwear. Timothy McVeigh, remember, was picked up on a random traffic stop!
And it’s true, they failed to search McVeigh and as a result he triggered the grenade he’d hidden in his underwear, blew up the station … oh, wait. That never happened.
Seriously. As the dissenters pointed out, the possibility that people picked up for random offenses just happen to have something handy to smuggle into jail exists, but it’s slim; there’s no worse rate of smuggling in states that ban suspicionless strip searches than in states that have them.
Slim is good enough for the judges; some of them even raised the possibility the individuals have lice as grounds for a search.
All that being said, they have a point. As long as someone is allowed to walk into a prison, or down the street, or drive along the highway immune to searches, there’s a possibility that someone will get away with something. There always will be. As dissenting Supremes complained after the majority sided with a teenage girl and against the school that strip-searched her (school administrators thought she might have hidden drugs in her underwear), knowing you can’t be strip searched gives the bad guys a safe haven.
But that’s why we have a Fourth Amendment. The possibility of someone getting away with something always exists. The temptation to search without a warrant or without any suspicion, Just In Case always exists too. And police have shown, over the decades, that they’re often willing to give in to that temptation.
The Fourth Amendment says no. It says you need to have a warrant, you need to have grounds for suspecting the search is necessary. It says the risk of someone getting away is less important than the risk of innocent people having to worry that if they’re picked up by the cops, they could get strip-searched, or that their house could be searched just because police thought that maybe possibly they might be doing something wrong.
Once again, the Supreme Court has chipped some of that freedom away.

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