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Immunity Shields Claims on Strip-Search of Teens

CINCINNATI (CN) - Two guards who strip-searched underage boys caught drinking are entitled to qualified immunity against Fourth Amendment claims, the 6th Circuit ruled.

The two boys, whose names are not revealed in the court record, had been arrested in June 2009 after testing positive for alcohol at a party celebrating their eighth grade graduation in Hazard, Ky.

Instead of being released to their parents, however, police brought the teens to the Breathitt Regional Juvenile Detention Center where they were subject to "a fully nude visual inspection by a correctional officer" before being admitted and detained overnight.

The boys were released the following morning and all charges were eventually dropped.

Their parents, T.S. and T.S., then sued the guards who conducted the searches, the detention center's superintendents and administrators of the state's Department of Juvenile Justice.

The suit alleged that, because the boys' offenses were nonviolent, they were exempt from the strip searches, which allegedly violated their Fourth Amendment rights.

A federal judge in Lexington looked at the case under the lens of the 1989 6th Circuit ruling Masters v. Crouch, which held that "'a strip search of a person arrested for a traffic violation or other minor offense not normally associated with violence ... is unreasonable.'"

But the U.S. Supreme Court had also just ruled in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington that upheld the enforcement of blanket strip-search policies against all jail inmates, regardless of the charge they face.

The Lexington judge nevertheless deemed Florence irrelevant and granted the boys partially summary judgment after denying the guards qualified immunity.

A three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit reversed Wednesday, noting that security concerns at a prison are the utmost priority under the majority opinion in Florence, and that exemptions would only complicate the intake process.

"The majority further observed that the record before it demonstrated that the seriousness of the offense on which the individual is detained tends to be a poor indicator of that person's security risk: the records available to jail officials often tell them very little about the detainee, and, not withstanding this lack of information, nonviolent detainees may well be impelled or coerced to transport contraband," Judge Danny Boggs wrote for the court. "The reasoning of our prior holding in Masters contemplates the prison officials must do exactly what the Supreme Court held they need not - screen out detainees from a blanket strip-search policy based upon the seriousness of their offense. It is simply not possible to square our decision in Masters with that in Florence. Masters is therefore abrogated."

Judge Bernice Donald joined Boggs in the opinion along with U.S. District Judge Frederick Pfarr Stamp Jr., sitting by designation from Wheeling, W.Va.

The case at hand does nevertheless present a "unique situation" because of the timing of the Florence decision and the fact that it deals with minors, according to the ruling.

But, "for the purpose of establishing that an official has acted in objective good faith, the most recent pronouncement of the Supreme Court on the issue will often serve as the best analytical starting point, regardless of when the case was decided," Boggs wrote.

The court concluded that "by June 2009, a reasonable official could have consulted ... numerous Supreme Court opinions ... and, in objective good faith, concluded that Masters was no longer good law."

In another blow to the teens, the panel ruled that, even without the Florence decision, their arguments would have little merit under a 2004 2nd Circuit case, N.G. v. Connecticut.

"N.G. involved suspicionless strip searches of juvenile detainees during their intake into the general population of a juvenile-detention center," Boggs wrote. "The majority affirmed the reasonableness of the suspicionless searches, observing that the state's in loco parentis over the juveniles created an enhanced responsibility to keep the detention center free of contraband, discover items that could be used for self-mutilation or suicide, and detect signs of abuse."

The panel did affirm denial of immunity for the guards on the state-law claims, however, ruling that their actions were considered "ministerial" and therefore ineligible for immunity.

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