WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court seemed ready Wednesday to endorse a jail policy that forces even people arrested on minor charges to undress and shower while being watched by guards.

Less clear was whether justices would decide jailers need a reason to suspect someone may be hiding a weapon or drugs before undertaking a more invasive strip search. The court heard arguments in a case weighing the privacy rights of people in jail against authorities’ need to maintain safety.

It’s the case of Albert Florence, the finance manager for a New Jersey car dealership, who was arrested on a warrant for an unpaid fine. Florence says he was twice required by jail guards, who stood close by, to undress, open his mouth and lift his genitals. On the second occasion, he also had to bend over and cough, in case he was hiding something inside his body.

Jail officials and the Obama administration back a policy that allows close searches of anyone entering the general jail population.

“What I would really like is an opinion that recognizes that deference to the prison and to their judgment is what’s appropriate under these circumstances,” Carter Phillips, the jails’ lawyer, told the court.

But Thomas Goldstein, representing Florence, said the court should draw a line that limits intrusion into someone’s privacy when there is no cause to suspect he is hiding anything.

Florence was arrested after a state trooper pulled over the family’s BMW sport utility vehicle as they were headed to dinner with his mother-in-law in 2005. His wife, April, was seven months pregnant and driving.”When somebody is pulled over like Mr. Florence, it’s laugh-out-loud funny to think he is smuggling something into this jail,” Goldstein said.