(CN) - Nine prison nurses who were strip-searched on suspicion of smuggling contraband may sue a Virginia sheriff for unreasonable search, a federal judge ruled.
In April 2011, Sheriff Bill Watson received information that unidentified Portsmouth, Va., jail staff members were bringing contraband into the facility. Based on this information, he ordered nine staff members to undergo a strip search and visual body cavity search.
The search found four plaintiffs with contraband - three cell phones and one jump drive - but their security clearances were not revoked until they filed a civil rights action one year later. In July 2012, U.S. District Judge Mark Davis refused to restore those security clearances pending the outcome of their case.
Though Davis said the sheriff and other defendants may held individually liable as to unreasonable search, he concluded Monday that they have immunity in their official capacities.
"The court finds that the defendants are state officers for purposes of Eleventh Amendment immunity and are thus immune from suit in federal court as to
plaintiffs' official capacity claims seeking money damages," the 48-page ruling states.
Davis added that the evidence "fails to demonstrate that defendants had individualized suspicion that the plaintiffs were importing cigarettes, drugs, or other readily concealable contraband into the jail on their persons."
In addition, the parties dispute whether the searches required the nurses to merely "squat and cough," or submit to a visual search of their cavities.
As long as "material facts remain in dispute that preclude either a ruling on the merits in defendants' favor, or a finding that defendants are qualifiedly immune from suit," the judge said.
Davis also dismissed First Amendment retaliation claims after finding that they primarily seek monetary damages for personal suffering.
"Although multiple injunction plaintiffs testified at the injunction hearing that they filed suit so that improper invasive searches would not happen to anyone else, such information was not before Sheriff Watson when he revoked any of the injunction plaintiffs' security clearances," he wrote.
"It cannot be said that [Sheriff Watson's] actions were a violation of a 'clearly established' constitutional right entitling injunction plaintiffs to monetary damages," Davis added.