In 2002, a federal appeals court covering Rhode Island ruled unconstitutional the arbitrary strip searches of persons arrested for minor offenses, and Rhode Island prison and police officials abided by that decision without serious incident for ten years. In 2012, unfortunately, the US Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, overruled the First Circuit’s decision, opening the door for the Department of Corrections and local police to conduct intrusive, humiliating, and unnecessary searches on any detainee in their custody, including those in pre-trial detention for minor non-violent crimes who are not suspected of carrying contraband. In March, the House and Senate Judiciary committees heard testimony on ACLU-drafted legislation that aims to reinstate the policy in place under the First Circuit decision by requiring municipal law enforcement to have reasonable suspicion prior to performing a strip search of misdemeanant arrestees, and a warrant based on probable cause before conducting a body cavity search. Similar legislation was heard, but never voted on, last year; the same occurred this year as the bill died in committee in both houses.
Strip Searches (H 7686, S 2668)
Representative Donna Walsh and Senator Gayle Goldin