Case studies: When strip searches go wrong

Here are a few recent examples of strip searches that fall apart under scrutiny; mark what they’ve done wrong so you don’t fall into the same traps


Strip searches pose a seemingly impenetrable minefield where one wrong step can land an agency in a legal nightmare from which the only escape is to write a big fat check. This doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, the courts have supported the right of law enforcement to conduct strip searches given appropriate circumstances.

Unfortunately too often agencies find themselves in a losing battle due to poorly written policies, inadequate training, or officer misconduct. By developing and instituting sound policies and procedures, agencies can place themselves in a better position to defend against or avoid litigation.

Learning from others
Before we dive into the particulars of drafting a quality policy, it is important to consider past cases which have been successfully brought against law enforcement agencies. Incorporating safe guards against these particular scenarios will help to reduce the risk that your agency will encounter a similar situation. The following are a couple of recent examples.

Byrd v. Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department (MCSO)
Charles Byrd was the subject of a pat (frisk) search during the search of a housing unit by detention officers and detention officer cadets. Inmates were ordered out of their cells wearing only boxer shorts. Once out of their cells, the inmates were lined up and the cadets frisk searched them under the direction of training supervisors. There were many male officers and cadets present, however; the cadet searching Byrd was a female. After the searches had been completed Byrd filed a series of grievances and ultimately filed suit against MCSO, the cadet, and her supervisor. The US District Court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals considered this a cross-gender strip search.

MCSO’s contraband policy defined a strip search as a “…visual scan of the inmate’s skin after all clothing has been removed,” a very similar definition as that found in PREA. However, it was not their definition of a strip search, but rather their definition of a frisk search with which the court took issue.

The contraband policy defined a frisk search as “…examining an inmate by inspecting his clothing, and feeling the contours of his clothed body.” It was the phrase “clothed body” which the court paid particular attention to. Because Byrd was instructed to leave his cell wearing only his “very thin” boxer shorts, the court did not consider Byrd to be clothed. The court ruled in favor of Byrd stating “…we hold that the cross-gender strip search performed on Byrd was unreasonable as a matter of law under the facts of this case and violated Byrd’s rights under the Fourth Amendment to be free from unreasonable searches.”

While clearing up perceived conflicts between the definitions of what constituted a strip search versus a frisk search may have helped MCSO’s argument, the liberal definition applied by the Circuit Court made this case seemingly unwinnable.

Holmes v. LaSalle County
LaSalle County Illinois wrote a big fat check to the tune of $355,000 when four officers placed Dana Holmes in a padded room and stripped of her clothing. This would have been an otherwise standard procedure for the placement of an individual in a padded or “safe” cell, had it not been for the questionable justification and execution of the procedure.

Holmes was arrested for DUI and brought to the LaSalle County Jail for processing where the incident was recorded on video. Upon intake Holmes’ property was inventoried and a pat search was performed by a female officer. The search began as a routine and methodical search.

The officer conducted a thorough search, beginning at the waist and moving down the left leg where she appeared to instruct, and assist, the intoxicated Holmes to lift her left leg in order to search the bottom of her foot. The process repeated on the right side. However when the officer got to Holmes’ right foot, Holmes raises her foot without assistance or instruction. This was perceived as an act of aggression and Holmes was immediately pinned against the wall and brought to the ground by officers.

Following the takedown, Holmes was placed into a safe cell and four officers stripped her of her clothing. Three of those officers were male. While placement of suicidal individuals in a padded or “safe” cell is common practice in many institutions, there was never any indication that Holmes was a danger to herself and little, if anything, to indicate that she was a danger to anyone else.

LaSalle County defended their actions, stating that Holmes was uncooperative and was placed in the cell to cool off. LaSalle County went on to argue that the officers did not perform a “strip search,” but rather removed Holmes’ clothing for her own safety. This argument of semantics was further complicated by Illinois compiled statutes 725 ILCS 5/103-1 which defines a strip search as “…having an arrested person remove or arrange some or all of his or her clothing so as to permit a visual inspection of the genitals, buttocks, anus, female breasts or undergarments of such person”.

The statute also prohibits strips searches of persons “arrested for traffic, regulatory or misdemeanor offenses, except in cases involving weapons or a controlled substance.” This comprehensive statute goes on to detail, in great length, all the specifics of obtaining permission and conducting a strip search.

Clearly the actions of LaSalle County Officers were not in line with state statutes. Rather than fighting the issue in court, LaSalle County settled.

Continued here.

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