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Editorial: No searches for petty crimes

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 21, 2014 5:00 AM

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It has been a week of turmoil and unrest across the world, from protests turned violent crackdown in Ukraine to massive street demonstrations in Venezuela to ongoing suppression of free speech in Sochi, Russia, at the Olympic Games.

What do these three have in common? Governments that are perceived as nonresponsive and even corrupt, where rights can be taken away as easily as they are given. These protesters risk their freedom, and even their lives, to speak out against injustice.

When looking at situations like these, it’s easy to be grateful that we don’t have to fight the same battles in America. Comparatively, we have it pretty good. The rule and tradition of law ingrained into our culture means that any potential challenge to freedom must first pass through our elected representatives.  But to think that means our rights can’t be taken away is naive.

Case in point: an Iowa House of Representatives subcommittee has given the go-ahead for a bill allowing police to strip-search a person for a simple misdemeanor. In Iowa, that includes possession of drug paraphernalia, domestic assault not resulting in an injury, and even traffic violations.

The bill, HSB 510 changes the standard for strip searches in these cases. Before, in order to conduct an invasive search, police would need probable cause, the same standard applied to home and vehicle searches. In essence, probable cause protects citizens from police overreach, ensuring that searches conducted without this important standard are inadmissible in court and potentially punishable.

But under the amended HSB 510, that protection is invalidated. “Probable cause” has been replaced with “reasonable suspicion.” While the need for safety and security in prisons is certainly vital, this new standard crosses the line. Strip searches would be conducted “at the discretion of the jail or municipal holding facility authorities.”

The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee 14-4 last week, after facing opposition from lawmakers as well as groups such as the ACLU. But now, the public has a chance to discuss the bill before it goes to the House floor for a vote.

Hard questions need to be asked about this legislation, questions of dignity and assumptions. Do we want to live under a rule of law that allows authorities to invade our bodies, the utmost private space, for a traffic violation? Is it OK to assume that those arrested for minor offenses deserve to have that right, the guarantee of probable cause taken away?

We believe that the guarantees of individual freedom enshrined in the U.S. Constitution are incongruent with the idea of strip searches after traffic stops. This legislation simply does not have a place in America.

Our justice system was designed to protect the innocent, not to rule with an iron fist. As Blackstone’s Formulation, one of the cornerstones of modern judiciaries states, “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

Removing probable cause as a prerequisite from a policy as invasive as strip searches is tantamount to reversing that formulation. By treating persons arrested or cited for simple misdemeanors as criminals with something to hide, we erode the trust between the citizenry and the government. We’ve seen what happens when that trust is gone: It looks something like Kiev, Ukraine.


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