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Published April 3, 2012 5:05 pm

Court leaves us at the mercy of police
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"In the Supreme Court's view, the closest we'll get to an annual physical is a police strip search." — Andy Borowitz

The United States Supreme Court may rule that Congress has the power to require that all Americans purchase health insurance. Or it may rule that such a law is beyond the power of Congress. It will not rule that Congress must pass such a mandate.

Likewise, the high court's ruling this week that police may subject any person in their custody to a strip search, even those held on suspicions of minor offenses and who pose no obvious threat, is a permissive ruling, not a mandatory one.

The best we can hope, then, is that the basic humanity of police chiefs, county sheriffs and state patrol commanders across the country will exceed the minimum level of decency set this week by the nation's maximum court.

Clearly, if the five-member majority of the court is as deferential to the will of Congress (or, at least, the will of the previous Congress) as it was unwilling to question the wisdom of those running the Burlington County, N.J., jail, then the Affordable Care Act is here to stay.

That jail is where one Albert Florence was hauled on a night in March of 2005. He was there because he was arrested on the basis of an erroneous warrant that falsely accused him of an act (not paying a fine) that is not a crime in that state. He was held for a week, and strip searched twice, before some judge finally took note of all the things that were wrong and ordered Florence released.

Florence is not alleging racism, though he is black, and not challenging the validity of the traffic stop that led to his arrest, even though his wife was driving the car that night. He did sue for a violation of basic civil rights for the two invasive strip searches, noting that nobody ever raised any concern that he was in any way a particularly dangerous person, and that the police had no reason to believe that he might be smuggling contraband into the jail.

But by its typical 5-4 majority, with swing Justice Anthony Kennedy in the familiar role of arbiter of the law, the court bowed before the wisdom of jailers everywhere.

Hope that law enforcement agencies will not abuse their power now rests with each such agency. With the legislative bodies that oversee them. And with the people who elect those bodies.

It isn't likely to get any better with rulings from the justices of the Supreme Court, whose only real-world exposure to the police is when the officers tip their caps and open the justices' car doors for them.