Law enforcement strip-search practice constitutional, appeals court rules
Blanket strip searches of incoming jail inmates are constitutional and necessary to prevent the smuggling of contraband into detention centers, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The decision by a full 11-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals replaces a smaller panel’s ruling in 2008 that strip searches are so dehumanizing that they violate a person’s constitutional rights if conducted without good reason to suspect that the individual is carrying drugs or weapons.
The ruling undermined one of several civil rights violations that antiwar protester Mary Bull and eight others alleged in their class-action lawsuit against the city and county of San Francisco. The protesters alleged they were mistreated by authorities when arrested during a November 2002 demonstration.
“This is not a final defeat at all. It opens the case to move forward,” attorney Mark E. Merin said of Tuesday’s fractured ruling, noting that the arrestees’ complaint was headed for trial by jury in federal district court.
Writing for the majority, Judge Sandra S. Ikuta, an appointee of President George W. Bush, said the court had found the strip-search policy “reasonable under the 4h Amendment.” She pointed out that the searches had produced hundreds of caches of drugs, money, shanks, knives and other items that can pose risk to jail personnel and other inmates.
Four separate opinions were filed by the 11 judges, including a dissent written by Judge Sidney R. Thomas and joined by three fellow appointees of President Clinton.
Thomas had written the 2008 ruling against strip searches without probable cause, saying that “the intrusiveness of body-cavity searches cannot be overstated.”
In his dissent, Thomas recounted that Bull had been arrested at a peaceful protest, slammed to a concrete floor during booking, stripped and subjected to a body-cavity search, then left naked in a cell for 11 hours. She was subjected to a second strip search before being released without charges.
-- Carol J. Williams