Editorial: Strip search bill would undermine basic privacy


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Police-citizen interactions seemed to take a spotlight in 2014, whether it was the killings of unarmed black men by police that sparked nationwide protests or the subsequent handlings of civil unrest, whether those be in Hong Kong or Ferguson, Missouri.

An Iowa House bill introduced last week could bring those tensions home.  The bill would allow police to strip-search anyone arrested and placed into the general population of a city or county jail. That includes those charged with simple misdemeanors, such as public intoxication and some traffic offenses.

One only need to read the police blotter to see that in a city such as Iowa City, that represents a large portion of overall crime. Such a bill would sanction the most invasive of searches for crimes that simply don’t call for that level of intrusion.

The rationale for the bill is in following the ruling of a 2012 Supreme Court decision that said corrections officers don’t need probable cause or reasonable suspicion before strip-searching detainees.  In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that a strip search could be conducted for any offense, however minor, before the person is admitted to jail.

In that case, the ruling endorsed strip searches that go against statues in at least 10 states and also by international human-rights treaties. The argument that won over the justices was that corrections officers needed to have the authority to check for smuggled weapons and drugs, as well as information about gang affiliations.

Under current Iowa law, a person arrested for a scheduled violation or a simple misdemeanor would not be subjected to a strip search unless there is probable cause to believe the person is concealing a weapon or contraband. The law also stipulates a series of conditions that must be fulfilled in order for a strip search to be conducted, including written authorization of the supervisor on duty, a search warrant for any body cavity other than the mouth, ears, or nose, among other restrictions.

But this bill threatens to erase these reasonable requirements, giving carte blanche to police officers in conducting strip searches and loosening the standard that they are held to. Proponents argue that the bill includes more limits on searches than the Supreme Court ruling mandated. Yet, if passed, this bill is a case of a legislative body allowing for the intrusion on the most intimate privacy one has.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes this bill is uncalled for, and if passed into law, would further erode the delicate balance between security and privacy, tipping the scales in favor of police without adequate reason. The current law allows for strip searches when there is probable cause and the need arises, and the actual basis for changing it doesn’t seem to exist. Though the Supreme Court case has set a precedent to allow these searches, that doesn’t mean we need to write them into our legal code.

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