WASHINGTON (CN) - A woman's claim that police violated her rights by refusing to cover her exposed breasts while she was being processed following a nightclub brawl can go forward, a federal judge ruled.
As recounted in the ruling, Brittany Spencer was involved in 3 a.m. altercation with another patron at Twelve Restaurant and Lounge, a northeast Washington nightclub, and was arrested on simple assault charges.
During the fight, Spencer say, her shirt was ripped open, exposing her breasts.
She claims police handcuffed her and brought her outside, not thinking to cover her before escorting her past the "large crowd" forming on the sidewalk as other bars on the street emptied for the night.
Spencer says a friend asked officers to cover her, but police ignored those requests, and continued to do so even after she was taken to a police station for process.
Once there, she claims, she was held for hours, topless, in plain sight of her cellmate and other police officers.
Spencer sued the District of Columbia and several unnamed police officers in September 2014, and filed an amended complaint in May 2015.
In it she contends the district should be liable for intrusion upon seclusion and that the officers violated her Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable seizure.
"John and Jane Doe Officers intruded upon Brittany Spencer's seclusion by intentionally requiring her to remain bare-breasted against her will," the amended complaint says. "It was unnecessary and unreasonable to not immediately cover up Brittany Spencer's breasts once she was securely in police custody."
The city challenged Spencer's suit for failing to state a claim, arguing she had not offered any actions the city or its officers took that violated the Fourth Amendment or her right to privacy, according to the motion to dismiss.
But in a March 4 ruling, Judge Christopher Cooper disagreed, pointing out that there are several court precedents for Spencer's claims.
Cooper relied heavily in his opinion on L.A. County v. Rettele, a Supreme Court case brought by a couple who was found naked in bed by police executing a mistaken search warrant. Police forced the couple out of bed and made them stand naked at gunpoint for two minutes before allowing them to get dressed.
Spencer's complaint follows Rettele's set of facts, and while the city claimed it is different because the officers did not cause Spencer's exposure, "that argument misses the mark," Cooper wrote.
Police have a duty to help the people they are arresting if they have experienced harm, whether or not the police caused the harm, the judge said.
"Rettele thus confirms that police violate the Fourth Amendment when they force a detainee to remain unclothed and exposed for longer than necessary to achieve a legitimate law enforcement purpose," Cooper wrote.
Cooper also struck down the city's claims of qualified immunity using Rettele, saying the officers should have known what they were doing violated the Fourth Amendment.
As for the common law claim of intrusion upon seclusion, Cooper again decided that it didn't matter if the officers caused Spencer's exposure, just that they did nothing to fix it after the fact.
Likening Spencer's claim to a hypothetical from the D.C. Circuit, in which a young woman has her picture snapped while a puff of air in a fun house blows up her dress to reveal her underwear, a person does not need to cause the exposure to invade another's privacy, Cooper wrote.
"First, a plaintiff's body may remain 'secluded' for purposes of this tort even if it is exposed by forces beyond his or her control," Cooper wrote in denying the motion to dismiss. "And second, a torfeasor need not bring about the exposure in order to be liable for invading a plaintiff's privacy and thus intruding upon her seclusion."
Representatives of the defendants declined to comment on the pending litigation. Jeffrey Light, who represents Spencer, also declined comment until he was able to speak with his client, and did not return comment before publication.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.