Cole v. Commonwealth, (Va. 2017)
An officer arrested Abdul Rahman Cole for a warrant. During the inventory of Cole’s car, the officer found an open alcohol container and some marijuana. When the officer told the jail’s booking deputy about the drug charge, the deputy told Cole that he had to submit to a strip search. Both the deputy and officer took Cole to a private area and told him to remove his clothing.
After removing his clothing, Cole was ordered to squat and the officer saw a white baggie protruding from Cole’s anus. The officer told Cole to raise his hands, but Cole instead plucked the baggie from the rear hole, stuck it into his mouth, and tried to swallow it. After a brief struggle, the officer somehow got the baggie, which held 14 smaller bags of cocaine.
Cole claimed the strip search was unreasonable under the Supreme Court holding in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders (566 U.S. 318 (2012)). In Florence, the Court upheld jail policies requiring a strip search of incoming inmates placed into general population, “regardless of the circumstances of the arrest, the suspected offense, or the detainee’s behavior, demeanor or criminal history.” Cole argued that, because he was arrested on minor charges, it had not been determined that he would enter the general jail population. In theory, Cole might have posted bail or have been taken before a magistrate and released without bail.
In Florence, the Supreme Court held that “correctional officials have a significant interest in conducting a thorough search as a standard part of the intake process,” and noted that correctional facilities “face grave threats posed by the increasing number of gang members who go through the intake process.” The Court also noted a thorough search helped identify health conditions that might threaten the safety of the facility, inmates and staff. Though Cole was not yet placed in general population, he was being held in a booking area where prisoners were held in group cells.
The Virginia Supreme Court held that the dangers of “disease, gang-based violence, and the disruption of jail safety due to an underground economy trading in contraband” cited in Florence applied to group detention in a booking area. Thus, the decision to conduct a strip search of prisoners charged with drug offenses, and who might bring drugs hidden in body orifices or undergarments, was consistent with the Florence ruling. Even though the search was based on minor drug charges and happened before Cole had the opportunity to see a magistrate or post bail, the court ruled the search reasonable.