No Immunity in Courthouse Strip Search

     SHERMAN, Texas (CN) – A woman who mouthed “I love you” to a murder suspect during his trial may have constitutional claims against an officer who strip searched her, a federal judge ruled.
     Ali Jo Burress says she was a spectator at a murder trial in a Lamar County, Texas courtroom when Judge Eric Clifford, concerned about safety, ordered that she be searched after he saw her mouth the words “I love you” to the suspect.
     Burress claims that Paris police Det. Ronnica Blake then strip searched her in a rest room without a warrant.
     Burress sued Blake, Paris Police Chief Bobby Joe Hundley Jr. and a John Doe defendant in Federal Court on Dec. 20, 2013.
     Her claims against Hundley and Doe were dismissed in September 2014 for failure to state a claim, U.S. Magistrate Judge Don Bush wrote in a case summary this month. But Burress’s First and Fourth Amendment claims against Blake remained.
     Bush on May 16 denied Blake’s motion for summary judgment. He held that the judge’s order to search Burress was valid and enforceable but the issue of whether Blake was wrong to strip search Burress is a different story.
     Blake stated in an affidavit that Burress began disrobing in the restroom without Blake requesting it. Blake claimed that with said saying she “had been through this before” and “knew what to do.”
     Burress denied that, saying the detective ordered her to strip.
     Judge Bush denied Blake’s qualified immunity defense under the Fourth Amendment due to questions about what actually happened in the courtroom bathroom.
     “If Judge Clifford’s order was only to search plaintiff while clothed (i.e., a pat down) – as defendant states was her intent – and if Blake nonetheless forced plaintiff to disrobe – as plaintiff claims – then there can be no quasi-judicial immunity as Blake would be exceeding the scope of the judge’s order. Or, if plaintiff did, as defendant alleges, voluntarily strip off her clothes in conjunction with the search, then there is no constitutional violation arising out of the strip search,” Bush wrote.
     “There is a clear fact issue before the court as to whether the strip search was plaintiff’s idea or Blake’s mandate, and it is a clear matter of the credibility of the two individuals involved best reserved for a jury in a trial on the merits.”
     In her First Amendment claim against Blake, Burress says she “did not remain in the courtroom for more than five minutes after she was searched because she was embarrassed and feared her friend would also be ‘messed with,'” Judge Bush wrote.
     So Bush also found disputed facts in Burress’s second constitutional claim.
     “Because of the many fact issues regarding the search, the court declines to dispose of plaintiff’s First Amendment claim on summary judgment,” Bush wrote.
     “There are fact issues regarding whether the actions in regard to the alleged search constructively hindered plaintiff’s rights to remain present at trial; that plaintiff briefly returned to the courtroom – where a friend was waiting for her – does not as a matter of law dispose of her First Amendment claim.”
     Blake declined to comment on the ruling Tuesday.
     Trial is scheduled for Sept. 15.

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