Jailhouse Strip-Search Policy Draws Concern
(CN) - Despite the Supreme Court's recent endorsement of blanket jailhouse strip-search policies, a federal judge found that one jail's policy may be "unnecessary or unjustified."
Edwin Blaisure brought the challenge in a class action against Susquehanna County and Warden Nicholas Conigliaro, alleging Fourth and 14th Amendment violations for unreasonable searches, as well as humiliation and emotional distress.
The complaint alleges that Susquehanna County Correctional Facility in Montrose, Pa., subjected Blaisure to a strip search and a visual body-cavity search of his mouth, genitals and buttocks, when he was first brought in on Aug. 25, 2010.
Five days later when Blaisure needed to leave jail for a hearing appearance, said he was allegedly searched in the same way.
Although Blaisure wore leg shackles and handcuffs, and armed probation officers escorted him, he was subjected to a second strip search upon returning to jail, according to the complaint.
Blaisure said he faced the same searches to attend another hearing and a dentist appointment the next month.
He seeks to represent all inmates and arrestees charged with nonindictable offenses who were processed, housed, or held over and searched at Susquehanna County since Nov. 11, 2008, though nothing indicated they were concealing contraband, drugs or weapons.
U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo dismissed the Fourth Amendment claims for arrestees in 2011, but he refused to dismiss those filed on behalf of inmates.
The defendants later admitted that they had searched Blaisure as he had alleged, and that they have "a blanket policy of strip searching every inmate upon leaving and reentering the prison during the time of their incarceration."
The prison claimed its policy "promotes the legitimate penalogical [sic] interest of protection of officers transporting prisoners; the protection of court personnel, including judges; the protection of healthcare professionals; [and] avoiding escapes."
Months later, a divided Supreme Court affirmed the 3rd Circuit's decision to toss aside similar claims filed by Albert Florence, a man subjected to strip searches and visual body-cavity searches in 2005 at two New Jersey prisons before the charges against him were dismissed.
The dissenting justices cited a long list of individuals arrested and strip-searched for minor offenses - including a nun, women who were lactating or menstruating, victims of sexual violence, and others detained for driving with a noisy muffler and the like.
Judge Caputo refused Thursday to grant Susquehanna judgment on the pleadings in Blaisure's case.
The fact that Blaisure was restrained and escorted every time he left or entered the prison may show that Susquehanna County's "blanket policy of strip searching prisoners each time they re-enter the facility is unnecessary or unjustified," the ruling states.
Caputo later added: "Further, the Supreme Court's holding in Florence, that 'the search procedures at the Burlington County Detention Center and the Essex County Correctional Facility struck a reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the needs of the institutions,' is narrower than the issue here. Florence involved searching inmates upon initial admission to the facility, while the disputed policy here involves searching all inmates both when they leave and when they re-enter the facility. This court already held that 'room for further factual inquiry' into the reasonableness of [Susquehanna County Correctional Facility's] SCCF's search policy existed in light of the earlier decision of the 3rd Circuit in Florence. Now that this decision has been affirmed by the Supreme Court, this room for factual inquiry remains. Therefore, Blaisure's allegations are sufficient to survive a motion for judgment on the pleadings."