Legality of strip searches

A strip search is the stripping (removal of clothing, search of person and/or personal effects) of a person to check for weapons or other contraband.

In North America, civil lawsuits, as well as criminal code changes against strip searches have usually been successful when a person is strip-searched by someone of the other gender, especially in cases where a woman has been strip-searched by a male guard or guards. The more disputed legal cases have often involved the presence of persons of the other gender during a strip search. Some of these cases have been less successful because of the legal technicality of who was actually performing the strip search, i.e. if multiple guards are present, the search is often (legally) said to be being performed by the person or persons giving the orders or instructions to the person or persons being searched.

Another legal issue is that of blanket strip searches, such as in jails where arrestees are routinely strip-searched prior to having been found guilty of any crime in a court of law. Courts have often held that blanket strip searches are acceptable only for persons found guilty of a crime. For arrestees pending trial, there must be a reasonable suspicion that the arrestee is in possession of weapons or other contraband before a strip search can be conducted. The same often holds true for other situations such as airport security and customs officers, but the dispute often hinges on what constitutes reasonable suspicion.

Incidental strip searches

In order to bypass the legal reasonable suspicion requirement, and because strip searches can be humiliating, the search often made less overt, as part of an intake process, that includes a mandatory shower. For example, many homeless shelters require a mandatory shower (supervised) prior to entry. Most prisons also include a mandatory shower along with a change of clothes. The shower serves to make the strip search less blatant as well as providing the additional benefit of removing contamination (in addition to removing weapons or other contraband). The ADCA Diversion Forum (Sobering Up Shelter - DASA, Alice Springs) advises that to keep shelters safe, all personal clothing should be collected from clients and cleaned, along with requiring each client to have a mandatory shower to "discreetly" check for weapons or other contraband. Thus bathing, which is a justifiable necessity, often allows a similar outcome to a strip search with less legal liability, being less actionable when applied to everyone entering a facility, as well as being less offensive to clients than requiring them to undergo what is overtly presented as a strip search.

The courts have often held that requiring a person to have a shower as a condition of entry into a space (such as a prison, shelter, or the like) does not, in itself, constitute a strip search, even if the shower and surrounding space are so constructed as to afford visibility of the unclothed body by guards during the showering process.

Hospitals often also have a mandatory shower, during lockdown, when mass decontamination is called for. Paul Rega, M.D., FACEP has specifically identified mass decontamination as providing the added benefit of checking for weapons or other contraband, as well as searching for clues among the clothes of persons found at a terrorist attack crime scene where it is recognized that the perpetrator(s) could be among the persons detained for decontamination.

Partial stripsearches

Partial strip searches are common at airports, for airport security, which often consists of:

Electronic stripsearches

Backscatter X-ray machines and other modern technology provide the ability to see through clothing, to achieve a similar result to an actual strip search.

Other meanings of the term

The term strip search is sometimes also used to denote the search for comic strips, or the like. For example, the first Google hit on "strip search" is a link to a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip fan site. Additionally, among the top 10 Google hits on "strip search" are links to singer talent searches taking place on the Las Vegas strip.

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