Strip clubs and the Fourth Amendment: Are they protected from police raids?

Judge Allows Strip Club’s Constitutional Case Against Police Raids to Move Forward

Judge Allows Strip Club’s Constitutional Case Against Police Raids to Move Forward

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July 15 2015 5:30 PM

Judge Allows Strip Club’s Constitutional Case Against Police Raids to Move Forward

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Cheetahs.

William Warby

As the Supreme Court recently reminded us, “the Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach”—including strip clubs, which, like most private property, are protected by the Constitution from “unreasonable searches.” Earlier this month a federal judge allowed a lawsuit against the San Diego police to move forward after several officers searched a club, Cheetahs, for several hours on two occasions without a warrant. (Cheetahs calls this a “raid.”) The police department had asked the judge to toss out the lawsuit, but he refused, ruling that Cheetahs had plausibly argued that officers violated the Fourth and 14th amendments by extensively searching the club—including, allegedly, the dressing rooms and private offices—with no prior judicial approval. (The Fourth Amendment bars unreasonable searches; the 14th applies that rule to the states.)

This case is pretty interesting for reasons that are only tangentially related to stripping. The Supreme Court has long held that business owners have a lower expectation of privacy than private homeowners—and that closely regulated businesses (like restaurants) have even more paltry privacy protections. According to the court, these businesses should have a low expectation of privacy because they are regularly subjected to administrative searches—to ensure health code compliance, for instance. Strip clubs, which present several potential health code contraventions, probably qualify as closely regulated commercial establishments. But by declining to throw out the case, the judge suggested that at least parts of these clubs—including, apparently, dressing rooms—cannot be searched absent a warrant or exigent circumstances.

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Even if Cheetahs wins this suit, its days may still be numbered. The city recently attempted to shut down the club after officers claimed to see strippers fondling patrons, in violation of city law. A judge upheld the order; Cheetahs is appealing the ruling. Unfortunately for the club, the Constitution probably won’t help it beat this particular charge.

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers the law and LGBTQ issues.