Strip Searches and the Law

There was a disturbing piece in this morning’s New York Times about a New Jersey man whose car was stopped for speeding and then hauled into jail for eight days and subjected to two strip searches. He wasn’t even the driver. So, why then the strip search and what does it tell us about our collective condition?

The Times reports that in 2005, Albert Florence’s wife was driving their BMW when a state trooper pulled them over for speeding. The couple’s 4-year old son was in the backseat. Here’s what the Time’s wrote in the story lede:

Albert W. Florence believes that black men who drive nice cars in New Jersey run a risk of being questioned by the police. For that reason, he kept handy a 2003 document showing he had paid a court-imposed fine stemming from a traffic offense, just in case.

It didn’t seem to help.

The article goes on to report that the state trooper who pulled them over ran a search and “found an outstanding warrant based on the supposedly unpaid fine.” The article continues,” Mr. Florence showed the trooper the document, but he was arrested anyway.”

It took eight days to sort out the mess, while Albert sat in two different county jails. During that period, he was strip-searched twice. Here’s how he described the experience to the Times:

“Turn around,” he remembered being told while he stood naked before several guards and prisoners. “Squat and cough. Spread your cheeks.” The treatment stung. “I considered myself a man’s man,” said Mr. Florence, a finance executive for a car dealership. “Six-three. Big guy. It was humiliating. It made me feel less than a man. It made me feel not better than an animal.”

Albert eventually was exonerated, but in the process he was diminished. The question is did it have to go this way? As I read about his plight, I kept wondering what leads to this kind of treatment? What imminent threat does society feel that warrants strip-searching a passenger in a car who is accused of paying a past fine?

Indeed, what enables agents of society, in this case law enforcement, to believe they should take such steps? What compels them to take this route? What kinds of scenarios would need to be conjured up in order to justify this approach?

Perhaps there was racism involved here. Perhaps we still don’t know the full story, that something else involving Albert took place.

And yet, I think it’s even more than that. As a nation, we are tense, anxiety-ridden, and often fearful of the “other.” There is this sense that we must keep running to keep up with the Joneses. There is the belief that if only we set enough standards for our kids somehow we can force our educational system to better prepare them as whole people.

At each turn we try to exert control over situations and ramp up pressure for results.

In the process, something gets lost, and often it is our sense of humanity. It is our connection to one another. It is to see people as people. It is to push aside the very decency we know we must practice, but which we forgo in the midst of our urge to take control, to protect ourselves, to draw lines in the sand.

The last paragraph of the Times story read as such:

Mr. Florence’s son has drawn a lesson from what he saw from the back seat in 2005. “If he sees a cop and we’re together,” Mr. Florence testified in 2006, “he still asks, ‘Daddy, are you going to jail?’”

What do you think Albert’s experience tell us about ourselves and our society?