Bell v. Wolfish

In Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979), pretrial detainees at a federal detention facility were required to expose their body cavities, including vaginal and rectal, for visual inspection following a contact visit from any individual not affiliated with the prison. Id. at 558. The Court acknowledged that this policy was adopted because of the considerable amount of money, drug and weapon smuggling occurring in the prison. Id. at 559. The Court considered the constitutionality of the body cavity search under the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches. Id. at 558. As a preliminary matter, the Court observed that the test of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment is not readily definable, and requires balancing the need for a particular search against the invasion of personal rights as a consequence of the search. Id. at 559. The Court concluded that custodial strip searches were constitutional so long as they were conducted in a reasonable manner; further, it announced that, upon "balancing the significant and legitimate security interests of the institution against the privacy interests of the inmates," the searches were valid even when conducted on less than probable cause. Id. at 560. The Supreme Court explained the procedure for determining the reasonableness of a search: In each case it requires a balancing of the need for the particular search against the invasion of personal rights that the search entails. Courts must consider the scope of the particular intrusion, the manner in which it is conducted, the justification for initiating it, and the place in which it is conducted. Id. In Bell v. Wolfish, the court reversed a decision of the Second Circuit which had held that restrictions placed on pretrial detainees must be justified by the standard of "compelling necessities" of jail administration. ( Wolfish v. Levi (2d Cir. 1978) 573 F.2d 118.) The Supreme Court, in holding that the test by which restrictions must be scrutinized is not "compelling necessities" but "punishment," states: "In evaluating the constitutionality of conditions or restrictions of pretrial detention . . ., we think that the proper inquiry is whether those conditions amount to punishment of the detainee . . . . Absent a showing of an expressed intent to punish on the part of detention facility officials, that determination generally will turn on 'whether an alternative purpose to which the restriction may rationally be connected is assignable for it, and whether it appears excessive in relation to the alternative purpose assigned to it.' Thus, if a particular condition or restriction of pretrial detention is reasonably related to a legitimate governmental objective, it does not, without more, amount to 'punishment.' Conversely, if a restriction or condition is not reasonably related to a legitimate goal -- if it is arbitrary or purposeless -- a court permissibly may infer that the purpose of the governmental action is punishment that may not constitutionally be inflicted upon detainees qua detainees. . . . Restraints that are reasonably related to the institution's interest in maintaining jail security do not, without more, constitute unconstitutional punishment, even if they are discomforting and are restrictions that the detainee would not have experienced had he been released while awaiting trial . . . The effective management of the detention facility once the individual is confined is a valid objective that may justify imposition of conditions and restrictions of pretrial detention and dispel any inference that such restrictions are intended as punishment." Bell v. Wolfish, supra, 441 U.S. 520, at pp. 535, 538-540.) In sum, the United States Supreme Court upheld the blanket policy of a pretrial detention center that conducted visual body cavity examinations of detainees following visitations with persons from outside the facility. In assessing the legality of this practice under the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court explained that various factors should be considered, including "the scope of the particular intrusion, the manner in which it is conducted, the justification for initiating it, and the place in which it is conducted" (id. at 559). Weighing these interests, along with the fact that the smuggling of contraband was a frequent problem posing significant security concerns for detention centers, the Court held that such visual cavity searches of pretrial detainees could be conducted on less than probable cause grounds so long as they were conducted in a reasonable manner (id. at 559-560).