Bill stripping away search limits goes too far

Law enforcement concerns are understandable, but strip searches for simple misdemeanor arrests are excessive

Todd Dorman
Published: March 11 2014 | 5:05 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:25 am in

In the same Statehouse where peeping drones and sneaky speed cameras give many lawmakers the creeps, a bill expanding strip searches cruised 93-5 in the House last week.

Railing against Big Brother is fashionable. Opposing your local sheriff is not.

The Iowa State Sheriffs and Deputies Association wants a bill that would allow staff in county jails to strip search anyone who is taken into custody and ends up in a jail's general population. That includes people arrested for low-level misdemeanors, such as traffic offenses, public intoxication, trespassing, etc.

Currently, officials need probable cause to search those folks, the same threshold needed to get a search warrant. Stripping is generally reserved for serious and aggravated misdemeanors and felonies. Sheriffs want to strip search anybody going to jail.

The reason is pretty straightforward. Sheriffs contend detainees who arenít searched can bring contraband, drugs, weapons, etc., into that general population.

ďYes, people have privacy rights. They have constitutional rights,Ē said Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner. ď Iím not saying we should ignore those in no way shape or form. Iím saying when a person who has not been strip-searched goes into general population, you have a large increase in the amount of contraband in that facility.Ē

The House, however, wouldnít go as far as Gardner and the association wanted. Representatives simply replaced ďprobable causeĒ with a less stringent ďreasonable suspicionĒ threshold. Thatís the kind of middle ground that gets you 93-5.

ďIím not exactly sure where the House version gets us,Ē Gardner said. ďI donít think ... that it gains us very much.Ē

ďMy preference would be not to have a bill on strip-searching, period,Ē said Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the bill awaits action. But he wonít declare the bill dead. Yet.

Still, I donít see a bill-signing ceremony in HF 2174ís future. And thatís OK.

Clearly, running a jail is no picnic, so I respect Gardnerís view. But expansions of police power, and any corresponding erosion in civil liberties that follow, usually are sold to us with very reasonable arguments. Public safety, national security, etc. Thatís why these are very difficult calls. Thatís why politicians look so hard for compromises to avoid them. And end up with compromises that please no one.

Iím sure in the world of running jails, strip-searches are simply procedures. But for the rest of us, itís anything but normal. As expressions of governmental power go, itís tough to get much more personal, invasive or humiliating. Sometimes, we as a society concede, searches have to be done. With limits.

There should be a fairly high legal wall standing between Americans and a strip-search. Higher, I think, than being picked up for a simple misdemeanor. Thatís too much power, too few limits and too much room for abuse. Linn County may run a tight ship. Thatís not true everywhere.

And if I get arrested, Iíll likely be bailed out before entering the general jail population, or a strip-search, becomes an issue. But someone with fewer resources to tap, who canít make bail, gets searched.

This really seems like the sort of issue where smart people can get together and figure out contraband-fighting strategies beyond strip-searches. The sort of people who developed drones, maybe.

 

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