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The National Trial Lawyers
Greater Lowell Bar Association

Strip Searches

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has recognized that strip searches are, by their very nature, terrifying, demeaning, and humiliating experiences that constitute a substantial intrusion on a suspect’s privacy rights. However, the Court also has recognized there are some situations in which it is proper for the police to order a suspect to remove an article of clothing and, in limited circumstances, it is sometimes even appropriate for the police to conduct manual body cavity searches. The first issue in these cases is determining the type of search that occurred.

  • A strip search is any search in which the police remove (or move to the side) the last layer of a suspect’s clothing which causes an intimate area of the suspect to be exposed, viewed, or displayed. It also counts as a strip search when a suspect obeys a police officer’s order to remove his clothes and expose an intimate area of his body. The Supreme Judicial Court has said a strip search does not require a suspect to be completely undressed, as long as at least one intimate area of his body is exposed. During a strip search, a visual body cavity search will likely occur, during which the police will examine the genital or anal area of the suspect to ensure contraband is not hidden anywhere within the suspect’s body. The police may ask the suspect to bend over in order to conduct the visual body cavity search.
  • A manual body cavity search involves more than just visually examining the intimate areas of a suspect. A manual body cavity search involves the police engaging in some sort of touching or probing of the body cavities.

When can the police conduct a strip search or a manual body cavity search?

  • In order to strip search a suspect in Massachusetts, the police must have probable cause to believe the search will result in the discovery of contraband or a weapon that would not have been discovered by a less-intrusive search. Even if the police have probable cause to order a strip search, officers are required to conduct the search in a reasonable manner. Reasonableness generally addresses the setting in which the search occurred. For example, a strip search in the privacy of a police station holding area may be reasonable whereas the same strip search on a public sidewalk during rush hour will probably be unreasonable. In order for the search to pass constitutional muster, it must be supported by probable cause and conducted in a reasonable manner.
  • The probable cause standard in Massachusetts is higher than the federal standard. The United States Constitution requires only that there is reasonable suspicion the search will yield contraband or a weapon. However, the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights provides for greater protections to its citizens.
  • Because a manual body cavity search involves a much greater degree of intrusion, the police are obligated to obtain a warrant prior to the search unless there are exigent circumstances.

In most cases involving a strip search or a body cavity search, the defendant will argue the search was unconstitutional. Many judges view these types of searches with great skepticism. If you were strip searched by the police and subsequently charged with a crime, you should immediately consult with a criminal defense attorney to explore your options.

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