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Inmate Strip-Searches Allowable, Circuit Rules

(CN) - The constitutional rights of inmates in San Francisco are not violated by blanket strip searches regardless of how minor the inmate's crime, the 9th Circuit ruled.

Citing of a problem of contraband smuggling in the jail system, San Francisco County Sheriff Michael Hennessey implemented a policy in the county's six jails that required strip searches of all arrestees before entering the general prison population.

Inmates arrested for non-violent crimes sued, claiming in a class action that the policy violated their Fourth Amendment constitutional rights to due process and privacy.

The district court agreed with the class, and denied Hennessey immunity against the claims. The county, the city and Hennessey appealed the denial of immunity, and a divided 9th Circuit panel affirmed the district court's ruling.

After a rehearing in front of all 11 judges on San Francisco-based bench, the judges ruled in four separate opinions that the search policy does not violate detainees' constitutional rights.

The court reversed the denial of Hennessey's motion for immunity. In doing so, it reversed the district court's ruling for Fourth Amendment liability against the County, the City and Hennessey.

Judge Sandra Ikuta, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, wrote for the majority: "The need for the San Francisco strip search policy and the 'invasion of personal rights that the search entails' must be resolved in favor of the jail systems institutional concerns."

Judge Sidney Thomas dissented, stating that the government "presses us to abandon all constitutional protections and to bless mandatory routine body cavity searches of those who, as a group, pose no reasonable risk of secreting contraband."

The individuals who brought the class action included a Catholic nun who was arrested for protesting the war, a woman who had bounced some checks and a man who had committed credit card fraud.

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