Thursday, May 28, 2009

Despite nudity, jail's clothing exchange rule is legal

The Court of Appeals has granted summary judgment to an upstate New York county which requires jail inmates to remove their clothing in the presence of a corrections officer.

The case is Kelsey v. County of Schoharie, decided on May 22. At the Schoharie County Jail near Albany, N.Y., jail officials require certain male inmates to exchange their street clothes for jail clothing. Under the rules, officers cannot conduct a personal search or body inspection or observe the inmate taking a shower or getting dressed. However, while medical screening provides for a "visual analysis of the inmate," the written policy states that a "strip/strip frisk search" shall not be routinely conducted." While officers can search the inmate's bodily cavity if they think he is carrying contraband, the Sheriff testified that this has never actually happened. In addition, he testified, “inmates are never instructed to squat, bend, turn, open their mouth, manipulate their body, or in any other manner expose themselves for a personal search or inspection” during the clothing exchange.

But the inmates say the practice is degrading. One said he had to disrobe in front of a male officer, although no one touched his body. An officer corroborated inmate testimony that the jail has deviated from its policy. "According to Officer Kenyon, inmates are required to stand in front of him and face him during the entire clothing exchange. He watches the inmates as they remove their clothing, the disrobing takes place in the 'holding cell where the inmate is at,' and there is no option to disrobe in private."

The district court denied the County's summary judgment motion, but the Court of Appeals reverses, with Judge Sotomayor dissenting from Judge Miner's decision. The majority finds that the written strip-search policy complies with Second Circuit precedent requiring individualized reasonable suspicion (as opposed to a blanket policy that applies to everyone) before officials conduct these intrusive searches. Despite evidence that inmates had to remove their clothing in the presence of officers -- an embarrassing circumstance, no doubt -- the Court of Appeals says this incidental burden is necessary to ensure proper functioning of the jail:

We conclude that the incidental observation of the body of an arrestee during a required clothing exchange, in the manner described by plaintiffs, is not an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. Moreover, it seems to us that a clothing exchange observed by corrections officers under the circumstances described by plaintiffs is related to “maintaining institutional
security and preserving internal order and discipline[,] essential goals that may require limitation or retraction of the retained constitutional rights of both convicted prisoners and pretrial detainees.” Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 546 (1979). The objectives served by a clothing exchange, according to Sheriff Bates, include assurance that each inmate has clothing that is clean and free of infestation; that inmates are clearly identifiable and distinguishable from visitors, staff and members of the public; and that a positive state of mind be instilled in each inmate.
Judge Sotomayor dissents, accusing the majority of ignoring evidence favorable to the inmates (this was a summary judgment motion, after all) as well as Second Circuit precedent on strip searches. She adds, "insofar as the majority suggests that 'brief[]' exposure of one’s private parts does not implicate the Fourth Amendment, ... our precedent does not support the notion
that a search need be prolonged or thorough to be termed a 'strip search.'” She adds, "the majority seems to suggest that the disrobing procedure at issue in this case 'does not implicate the type of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment' and is distinguishable from traditional strip searches of persons charged with misdemeanors because of the motives of the officers conducting the procedure. But the privacy interests protected by the Fourth Amendment do not become irrelevant merely because we use the nomenclature of 'clothing exchange' instead of 'strip search.'”

No comments: