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JAILS / CORRECTIONS

6th Circuit: Strip Searches in Jails / Detention Centers

 

by Jack Ryan, J.D.



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The foundation case for the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit is Masters v. Couch,i in which the court rejected the notion of strip searches of arrestees entering a jail where the arrest was based upon a minor offense.

Karen Masters was arrested pursuant to an erroneous failure to appear warrant in Jefferson County, Kentucky. Masters had been stopped for motor vehicle violations and cited for operating with an expired registration and failing to maintain insurance.  She was summoned into court on these charges.  Although she went to court, she was given a subsequent date to appear however the judge accidentally wrote that she was required to appear on October 16th, while her paperwork and the actual date of her required appearance was October 23rd.  On October 21st, an officer went to Masters’ home and arrested here for failing to appear on October 16th.

The court described her processing at the jail as follows:

At the corrections building the plaintiff was required to remove her shoes and empty her pockets and then was "frisked" by a female attendant. While Mrs. Masters was in a "holding room" a different female attendant ordered her to open her blouse. This search occurred in front of a window in the holding room, in plain view of other persons. Approximately four hours after her arrest the plaintiff was handcuffed to another woman and taken to a room on the third floor of the Jefferson County jail. At that point, still another female attendant subjected the plaintiff to a strip search over her continued protestations of mistake. The plaintiff was required "to remove all of her clothing except her underpants and to turn around, drop her underpants, bend over and expose her rectum." After putting on a jail dress, the plaintiff was lodged in a jail cell with other persons. Later in the evening she was released on her own recognizance and ordered to report to court at 9:00 a.m. the next day. The following morning the presiding judge acknowledged the recording error that led to the issuance of the arrest warrant.

In rejecting the strip search which occurred the court reasoned as follows:

We have found no authority approving a practice of conducting a strip search of a person arrested for a simple traffic violation in the absence of at least reasonable suspicion that the person might be carrying a weapon, illegal drugs, or other contraband. As the defendants have noted, the Supreme Court approved a policy of conducting strip searches of pretrial detainees under certain circumstances in Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 60 L. Ed. 2d 447, 99 S. Ct. 1861 (1979). These searches were conducted following every contact visit by a detainee with a person from outside the institution. There is an obvious risk that such a visit may be used to introduce contraband into a penal institution. While the Court emphasized the wide-ranging deference to be accorded the decisions of correction officials with respect to institutional security, it clearly prescribes a test of reasonableness based upon a balancing of competing interests:

The test of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application. In each case it requires a balancing of the need for the particular search against the invasion of personal rights that the search entails. Courts must consider the scope of the particular intrusion, the manner in which it is conducted, the justification for initiating it, and the place in which it is conducted.

As the court stated in Mary Beth G. v. City of Chicago, 723 F.2d 1263, 1272 (7th Cir. 1983), Bell v. Wolfish does not validate a blanket policy of strip searching pretrial detainees. Bell v. Wolfish authorizes particularized searches where objective circumstances indicate such searches are needed to maintain institutional security. The Mary Beth G. court found that no such need existed for strip searches, including visual inspection of the breast area and body cavities, of female detainees arrested for traffic offenses and other nonviolent misdemeanors. The city's inability to gather evidence proving that female minor offenders in general were security risks demonstrated that the only justification for the policy was institutional convenience -- a policy of strip searching all female detainees is easier to administer than one which requires a balancing of interests in each case and an individual determination of need.  Id. at 1272-73...

The defendants seek to justify the strip search with the fact that Mrs. Masters was being moved from the holding area to a cell area on a different floor of the justice center. Several cases have recognized imminent mingling with other inmates as a consideration in the decision whether to strip search a detainee. However, the fact of intermingling alone has never been found to justify such a search without consideration of the nature of the offense and the question of whether there is any reasonable basis for concern that the particular detainee will attempt to introduce weapons or other contraband into the institution.

The court concluded:

The decisions of all the federal courts of appeals that have considered the issue reached the same conclusion: a strip search of a person arrested for a traffic violation or other minor offense not normally associated with violence and concerning whom there is no individualized reasonable suspicion that the arrestee is carrying or concealing a weapon or other contraband, is unreasonable. We believe the right of such a person to be free of such a search was "clearly established" on October 21, 1986. The single fact that Mrs. Masters, for some reason, would come into contact with other prisoners was not sufficient justification for the search in this case. It did not outweigh the other factors negating any claim that such a search was reasonable in this case.

A recent strip-search lawsuit involving Grayson County, Kentucky applied the Masters v. Crouch analysis but rejected the plaintiff’s allegation that the particular change-out [changing from plaintiff’s clothing to jail clothing] which required her to expose her torso to jail personnel, constituted an unreasonable strip search.ii 

In her Complaint, the Plaintiff alleges that she was arrested and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and having an open container of alcohol in a motor vehicle. She was taken to the Grayson County Jail in the early morning hours of September 3, 2007. At the jail, she was taken into a room where she was told to remove her clothes except for her bra and underpants. She alleges that during this portion of the booking process - which was apparently part of a clothing-exchange procedure - her "torso was exposed to jail personnel."

In rejecting Mattingly’s claim that the clothing exchange process constituted an unreasonable strip search, the court citing opinions from other circuits held as follows:

In Stanley v. Henson, the Seventh Circuit considered a similar set of facts and distinguished them from those in Mary Beth G. 337 F.3d 961 (7th Cir. 2003). In Stanley, the plaintiff had been arrested facing misdemeanor charges of battery on a police officer and resisting arrest. Id. at 962. She was taken to jail where an officer conducted a pat-down search of her while she was fully clothed; this search turned up no weapons or other contraband. Id. The plaintiff was then required to go through a clothing-exchange procedure. Id. She was taken to a semi-private room where she was provided a jail-issued uniform and told to remove all her street clothing, except for her underpants, and to change into the uniform. Id. The plaintiff was not wearing a bra at the time, requiring her to expose her breasts as she changed. Id. While the plaintiff changed, an officer remained in the room, continuously observing her until she was dressed in the jail uniform, but at no time did the officer touch the plaintiff or conduct a visual inspection of the plaintiff's body cavities. Id.

As here, the plaintiff in Stanley brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 contending that the jail's clothing-exchange procedure caused her to be subjected to a strip search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. She argued that the search was unreasonable because it was done without regard to the particular charges against her and because there was no reason to suspect that she was concealing any weapons or drugs. Id. at 962-963. The court held otherwise. It concluded that although the plaintiff had been subjected to a "search" as a result of the clothing-exchange procedure, the scope of the intrusion was not "excessive" because the plaintiff was allowed to leave her undergarments on; because she was not required to submit to a visual inspection of any body cavities or to any touching by the jail officer; and because the search occurred in an apparently professional manner in a semi-private area. Id. at 965. The court found that this intrusion was specifically unlike the intrusive search that it had held was unreasonable in Mary Beth G. where detainees "who were not inherently dangerous and who were being detained only briefly while awaiting bond" were required to undergo visual inspections of their anal and genital cavities. Id. at 965-966. Thus, the Stanley court ultimately concluded that the "relatively minimal intrusion into the privacy interest held by [the plaintiff]" was not unreasonable because jail officials must view any person entering the jail system with at least a minimal amount of suspicion and must prevent the introduction of weapons and contraband into jails.

The Court finds the reasoning in Stanley sound. Assuming the facts alleged in the Complaint to be true, the Plaintiff was subjected to a minimally intrusive search as part of the Grayson County Jail's clothing-exchange procedure. However, for all the reasons set forth Stanley, the Court holds that the search was not unreasonable. Thus, the Court concludes that the Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claim must be dismissed because she has not stated a claim upon which relief can be granted.

Thus, while the law is clear in the 6th Circuit with respect to blanket strip search policies, the law with respect to clothing exchange would indicate that if jail staff is not making a visual inspection of the arrestee’s body during the exchange and there is some level of privacy, these procedures will meet constitutional standards.

CITATIONS:

i Masters v. Crouch,  872 F.2d 1248 (1989).

ii Mattingly v. Grayson County, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64837 (W. Dist. Ky. 2008).

 

 
       
 


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