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Can The Police Strip Search You For Driving on a Suspended License?

arrest car police officer handcuffs

Have you ever failed to pay all or part of a ticket, and then unknowingly had your license suspended, and then continued to drive using that suspended license?1 Have you ever hung out in a club or bar where people were using drugs?2 Do you know anyone who has failed to keep their property clean?3 If so, it is possible for the police to arrest you and, until recently in New York City,4 strip search you!

The law in New York states that a police officer may arrest you if he sees you commit a misdemeanor.5 The three crimes listed above (and many others) qualify as misdemeanors, and so if the police observe you committing one of them, they are permitted to, but are not obligated to, arrest you.

The New York City Department of Corrections made it a practice to strip searchall misdemeanants charged with drug or weapons crimes who were detained upon arrest as well. The City claimed that “like felony detainees, [these misdemeanants] could never legitimately claim that they had a ‘right’ not to be strip searched.”6

Unfortunately, there are major problems with the City’s logic. The 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as applied against the States by the 14th Amendment, prohibits the government from conducting “unreasonable” searches and seizures. Claiming that the Dept. of Corrections violated this Constitutional provision, a group of arrestees who had been strip searched at Riker’s Island without any individualized inquiry as to whether they were likely to be hiding weapons or contraband, sued the City of New York for violation their Constitutional right not to be searched “unreasonably.”[7]

Mark Hamblett, in the New York Law Journal, pointed out Southern District Judge Gerard Lynch’s recent finding in this case that the city is liable for violating the Constitutional right of those arrestees.[8]He pointed out that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that “it is ‘long-standing precedent’ that before a misdemeanant may be lawfully strip-searched on intake, the Fourth Amendment requires an individualized ‘reasonable suspicion that [he] is concealing weapons or other contraband based on the crime charged, the particular characteristics of the arrestee, and/or the circumstances of the arrest.’”[9]

Judge Lynch reaffirmed the notion that the Constitutional default setting of the police should be “Do Not Search” mode. Deviations from that require some specific, individualized justification. The police must have some specific reasons to justify a “reasonable suspicion” that a detainee may be in possession of either contraband or a weapon that poses a danger to the police.

The bottom line is that it is better not to commit any misdemeanors to begin with. But if you are arrested for one, the police need some specific facts on which to base a suspicion that you in particular have contraband or weapons (that would be revealed by a strip search) in order to conduct a strip search. If the police find anything illegal during a strip search, and the search was conducted without “reasonable suspicion,” you may be able to have that evidence suppressed. So be sure to hire a good criminal defense attorney to help you with this or any other criminal defense matter.


[1]NY Veh. & Traf. § 511(1) (West 2009)

[2] NY Penal § 240.36 (West 2008)

[3] NY Penal § 240.45 (West 2008)

[4]McBean v. City of New York City, 2009 WL 2524617 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 14, 2009)

[5]NY Crim. Proc. § 140.50 (West 2004)

[6]McBean at *6.

[7]McBean at *1-2.

[8]McBean at *6.

[9]Kelsey v. County of Schoharie, 567 F.3d 54, 62 (2d Cir.2009)

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