STATE — Regarding a case decided today by the U.S. Supreme Court that originated in the Garden State, U.S. voters say strip searching shouldn’t be for everyone who winds up in jail. According to a national study by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind™, 65% of voters say prison officials need to have a reasonable suspicion before they strip search anyone in jail, especially if the offense is minor, such as failing to pay a traffic ticket. Just 31% of voters say prisons should have the option of strip searching everyone admitted to jail, regardless of the offense.
“While most Americans aren’t sympathetic to hardened criminals, they can imagine getting into minor scrapes with the law,” said Bruce Peabody, a professor of political science at FDU and editor of The Politics of Judicial Independence. “Here we have a perfect storm of public opinion that combines people’s misgivings about government power with the great invasiveness of personal searches, and the fact that such searches could occur even after small matters like ticket violations.”
Democrats and Republicans agree on the case by similar two-to-one margins. But men are more likely than women to give prison guards more latitude: 37% of men say automatic strip searches are OK, compared to 25% of women.
More than four of five voters nationwide (82%) say they had not heard anything about the case that originated with a stop of a driver in New Jersey, yet only 4% were unsure or mixed in their opinion when asked to decide.
“Clearly, this is not just a Jersey thing,” said Peabody. “The public is able to wrestle with and weigh in on arguments involving important constitutional questions, even if they are not familiar with the technical aspects of the Supreme Court case. The fact that so few people are unsure how to decide this case suggests that the underlying issue is clear cut in the public’s mind.”
Albert Florence, a black motorist, was stopped in his BMW in Burlington County in March of 2005. He was arrested for an outstanding bench warrant from Essex County for failing to pay a court fine (which, in fact, he had paid, but the records were not updated). Thus began a week long ordeal in which Florence was strip-searched twice, first at the Burlington County jail, then at the Essex Country jail to which he was transferred, before being released by a judge on the grounds that he was not wanted for arrest in the first place.
Voters nationwide expressed their opinions before the Supreme Court issued their 5 to 4 decision today allowing routine searches of anyone in the general prisoner population. The Fairleigh Dickinson University poll of 855 registered voters nationwide was conducted by telephone using both landlines and cell phones from Nov. 29 through Dec. 5, 2011, and has a margin of error of +/-3.5 percentage points.
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