by Jeremy Leaming
Albert W. Florence had paid a fine for a New Jersey traffic violation and kept the document proving payment in his car, but that evidence was not enough to dissuade a state trooper from arresting him in 2005 and hauling him off to jail where he was kept for a week and subjected to two strip-searches during that time.
Florence, as recounted in this interview with the National Constitution Center and ACS, was humiliated by his pointless arrest and the treatment that followed. As The New York Times’ Adam Liptak notes in this article, a “failure to pay a fine is not a crime. It is, rather, what New Jersey law calls a nonindictable crime.”
Florence and his family were not set on letting New Jersey have the last word, and lodged a lawsuit against the county arguing that its sweeping policy of mandating strip searches of people arrested for minor offense violates the Fourth Amendment.
“I felt like my rights were violated,” he said in the National Constitution Center/ACS podcast. “I felt belittled; I just felt like I needed some type of justification.”
The Supreme Court may provide some answers in this matter. It will hear oral argument in the case, Florence v. Board of Freeholders, tomorrow morning.
University of Maryland School of Law Professor Sherrilyn Ifill, during the ACS Supreme Court Preview, highlighted the case, saying it is likely to have “tremendous resonance for many people,” for several reasons, including New Jersey’s suspect history of state troopers pulling over a wildly large percentage of black drivers.
Ifill also noted that more than 14 million Americans are arrested every year, and “very often they are arrested and ultimately not charged.”
In Florence’s case, he was clearly wrongfully arrested.
“He had in fact paid the fine,” Ifill said. “And in fact, so nervous was he about the possibility of being pulled over on this outstanding warrant, that he carried with him the copy with the seal on it – the raised seal – indicating that he in fact already paid the fine, and he showed this to the officer, but the officer” opted for what the computer showed.
After he was finally brought before a judge – Ifill noted that the authorities failed to bring Florence before a magistrate within 24 hours of his arrest, a requirement – he was cleared. The judge determined “he had in fact paid the outstanding” fine, and “therefore he should not have been arrested,” Ifill said.
In part, the justices will be asking, Ifill said, “Can a jail have a policy of blanket strip searching everyone who comes in or whether each individual is entitled to the individualized determination of whether there is a reasonable suspicion that the individual might be carrying contraband or might otherwise be concealing a weapon of some sort.”
But there is additional context to the case, Ifill noted.
“Obviously race plays a key role here,” Ifill said. “Mr. Florence is African American. New Jersey of course is the place with the famous driving while black I-95 case, in which 75 percent of people stopped and arrested on I-95 by troopers were black, although blacks constituted only 30 percent of the motorists, and all of the evidence was that blacks and whites committed driving infractions at the same level; so you’ve got the race context, but you’ve also got the context of 14 million people being arrested; that the police do make mistakes.”
Ifill’s entire remarks on the Florence case are below or here.