By The Gazette Editorial Board
The Iowa Legislature should drop consideration of a bill that would lower the legal threshold for strip searches in county jails and municipal holding facilities.
A bill approved by the Iowa House would allow officers to strip-search anyone in a jail’s general population if they have “reasonable suspicion” that detainee is in possession for contraband. That includes offenders arrested for low-level misdemeanors, such as traffic violations and public intoxication.
Under current law, those low-level offenders, unlike those arrested for felonies and more serious misdemeanors, can be strip-searched only if officers have “probable cause” to think they’re carrying drugs, weapons or other contraband. That’s the same legal standard law enforcement must meet to obtain a search warrant.
The House bill is better than an original proposal by the Iowa County Sheriffs and Deputies Association, which would have removed any legal standard and left strip searches up to the judgment of jail staff. Sheriffs contend allowing unsearched offenders into the general population among other inmates who have been strip-searched raises safety issues.
We have no doubt that the sheriffs’ concerns are legitimate. But we don’t think they outweigh the potential harm of vastly expanding law enforcement’s authority to strip-search.
Strip-searches, although sometimes necessary, are not a variety of police power that should be taken lightly or considered routine. And although searches might be handled swiftly and efficiently in a well-run facility, the potential for abuse, the possibility of strip searches being used as a form of humiliating punishment, rises sharply as legal standards weaken. And it’s hardly fair to strip-search offenders who lack the resources to make bail while not searching those who never enter the general population because they can buy swift release.
So far, the bill has not moved much in the Senate. We think it ought to stay that way.Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org