An illegal strip search lawsuit lawyer can help if you were the victim of an unconstitutional search.
Americans have a constitutional right to privacy and law enforcement officials must respect that right.
Lawsuits against prison, jails, and police agencies have resulted in substantial settlements for people forced to undergo an unlawful search.
- Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches
- What is a strip search?
- When are strip searches lawful and unlawful?
- Searches for indictable vs. non-indictable offenses
- Lawsuits and settlements for illegal strip searches
About Illegal Strip Searches
Illegal strip searches can occur in a variety of different settings. They can be performed by police after a person’s arrest or in a jail or prison. Or, they can be conducted at airports in the name of national security.
It is critical for everyone in the U.S. to understand that there are constitutional protections against illegal searches, and that these constitutional protections apply in a variety of settings.
Even in situations in which a person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as in a jail or prison, that fact alone does not mean that invasive strip searches are lawful.
If law enforcement officials and members of private security teams are going to be held accountable for unlawful strip searches, it is important for anyone who has been the victim of a potentially illegal strip search to learn more about options for filing a claim.
An experienced lawyer with a history of winning constitutional rights cases can help. Contact our award-winning law firm to find out if you can file an illegal strip search case.
Fourth Amendment Right Against Unreasonable Searches
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects against unreasonable searches. The text of the Fourth Amendment reads:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Generally speaking, in order for a search to be lawful under the Fourth Amendment, a law enforcement official conducting a search generally must have probable cause. Probable cause is something more than reasonable suspicion, which is required for a police officer to stop a person in the street. Yet when it comes to a strip search, the determination of reasonable suspicion or probable cause may not even apply if the person being searched does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Ultimately, the initial test is whether the person being searched had a reasonable or legitimate expectation of privacy, and whether or not that expectation of privacy was reasonable. Only if there is a reasonable expectation of privacy does the searcher need to show that there was probable cause for the search.
To be clear, in order to have full protections under the Fourth Amendment, a person must have a reasonable or legitimate expectation of privacy—either of their property or their person. Some people, according to federal court decisions, do not have a reasonable or legitimate expectation of privacy.
In some cases, the lack of a reasonable expectation of privacy is a function of the person’s status as someone charged with or convicted of a crime. In other cases, the lack of a reasonable expectation of privacy is a function of where the person is, such as in an airport, where national security considerations are said to outweigh reasonable expectations of individual privacy.
When it comes to strip searches, there is a long court history concerning the rights of privacy that people have (or do not have, as the case often is) under the Fourth Amendment:
• In Bell v. Wolfish (1979), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is reasonable for prisons to conduct body cavity searches following inmate contact with visitors, and that these body cavity searches conducted under these conditions do not require a showing of probable cause. The Court reasoned that the security issues posed by potentially smuggled contraband outweighed an inmate’s privacy rights.
• In Hudson v. Palmer (1984), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prison inmates do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to their possessions in their prison cells. As such, the Court ruled that Fourth Amendment protections do not apply when it comes to questions of searches in prison cells. While this case did not apply specifically to strip searches or similar searches, it laid the groundwork for subsequent courts to determine that prisoners lack a reasonable expectation of privacy, including in strip search cases.
• In Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders (2012), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that blanket strip searches in jails and prisons, regardless of whether there is reasonable suspicion or probable cause, are lawful under the Fourth Amendment. The Court also clarified that blanket strip searches do not violate the Fourth Amendment even when they are conducted on pre-trial detainees or inmates charged with or convicted of minor offenses. In sum, Florence said that, under federal law, jail and prison inmates, even those who have not been convicted, can be subject to a blanket strip search policy without violating the Fourth Amendment. The Florence decision has been cited in subsequent court cases as justification for further limiting Fourth Amendment rights of detainees and inmates. At the same time, Florence does not permit strip searches that are conducted for reasons that are unlawful. A strip search that targets a specific inmate for reasons that are not directly related to the security interests of the corrections facility, or a strip search that targets an individual or group based on unlawful discrimination or harassment, is not permitted under Florence.
These U.S. Supreme Court cases largely address whether a detainee or inmate in a corrections facility has a reasonable expectation of privacy. It is important to consider the issue of a reasonable expectation of privacy from the point of arrest to imprisonment in a corrections facility.
Yet even outside these contexts, you should know that many people are illegally strip searched by police even prior to an arrest. In these situations, it is important to know that you likely do still have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and the police officer must have probable cause to conduct a search under the Fourth Amendment.
What is a Strip Search?
In order to understand what constitutes an illegal strip search, it is critical to learn more about the definitions of a strip search that exist. Different parties may have varying definitions of what constitutes a strip search.
For example, a prison or jail administrator who is conducting a strip search may have one definition in mind that involves a physical search of the inmate’s body, while state and federal definitions often include broader definitions of a strip search to clarify that complete nudity may not be required for a strip search to have taken place.
Various federal cases have defined what constitutes a strip search in the context of a person’s rights to privacy and to be free of unlawful searches under the Fourth Amendment. The following are some specific cases that have clarified the definition of a strip search:
• Seeing an inmate nude does not necessarily constitute a strip search: In order for a correction officer seeing an inmate without clothes on to constitute a strip search, the viewing of the inmate or detainee’s naked body must occur as part of a search procedure. Any type of incidental or accidental viewing of a naked body does not constitute a strip search. The First Circuit’s ruling in Wood v. Hancock County (2003) clarified this definition within the courts governed by the First Circuit.
• Nudity is not required for a strip search: Strip searches can occur even if a person is not required to remove all of his or her clothes. In Redding v. Stafford Unified School District (2008), the Ninth Circuit said that a search requiring a student to remove clothes except her bra and underwear constituted a strip search. In Masters v. Crouch (1989), the Sixth Circuit ruled that a person who is required to unbutton a shirt to expose her chest for an inspection constitutes a strip search. Further, in Wood v. Hancock County (2003), the First Circuit underscored that a search does not have to be “prolonged or thorough” in order to consider a strip search.
• Observing nude detainees or inmates sometimes constitutes a strip search: In some courts, the observations of a person while showering or changing into a prison uniform may constitute a strip search. For example, in Doan v. Watson (2001), a case out of the Southern District of Indiana, the court ruled that observing inmates jailed on misdemeanor charges who were showering constituted a strip search. Similarly, in Burns v. Goodman (2001), the Fifth Circuit said that a male corrections officer observing a female detainee who is changing into jail-issued clothing could constitute a strip search.
• Touching bare body parts of an inmate or detainee: If a corrections officer needs to touch the bare body parts of an inmate or a detainee, such acts need to be analyzed as a strip search. In Schmidt v. City of Lockport (1999), a Northern District of Illinois case, the court ruled that anytime a detainee is searched and her buttocks, breasts, or genitals are touched in any capacity, the requirement of reasonable suspicion—necessary for a lawful strip search—must be met.
While the cases cited above help to clarify different courts’ applied definitions of a strip search, it is important to remember that many of these decisions may not be binding in specific courts. Circuit court decisions are binding for the states served by the circuit, but can only be persuasive authority in other circuits.
When are Strip Searches are Lawful or Unlawful?
Whether or not a strip search is lawful depends upon a couple of key factors surrounding Fourth Amendment protections. As we discussed above, to determine whether a strip search is permitted under the Fourth Amendment, you must ask:
• First, did the person being searched have a reasonable expectation of privacy? If there was no reasonable expectation of privacy, it is possible that the search may be permitted under Florence.
• Second, if there was no reasonable expectation of privacy, was the search conducted for a legitimate purpose? If yes, the strip search may be lawful under Florence, but if not, the search may be illegal.
• Third, where was the person when the search was conducted, and who conducted the search? If the search was conducted in a correctional facility and the person searched was a detainee or inmate, Florence likely means that the search was permissible.
However, there are other spaces in which a person may not have a full expectation of privacy, yet a strip search may not be lawful.
For example, in airports, most people—by virtue of entering the airport, which is a space where national security concerns are typically considered to outweigh privacy rights of travelers and others in the airport—do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Yet TSA agents are only permitted to conduct administrative searches, which do not include strip searches under most circumstances.
In situations where the person conducting the search is not a government employee (like a corrections officer) but is instead a private security guard (such as at a mall or another retail establishment), then a Fourth Amendment question cannot even arise—Fourth Amendment cases are limited to violations by government employees. Just because a non-government employee conducted the search does not mean that it was permitted. You could still be able to file a personal injury claim alleging an invasion of privacy.
Finally, if the person being searched does have a reasonable expectation of privacy and the person conducting the search is a government employee, did the person conducting the search have reasonable suspicion or probable cause under the circumstances?
To be clear, Florence does not make strip searches permissible under any and all circumstances, such as those that are conducted for discriminatory reasons or those that are conducted merely to harass a detainee or an inmate.
Indeed, under the Eighth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment, strip searches must be done for a legitimate reason, and they cannot be conducted in order to humiliate or to harass a prisoner. When a strip search is conducted for unlawful reasons, the detainee or inmate should not assume that Florence is a barrier to filing a claim and seeking a remedy.
It is important to discuss the particular facts of your case with an attorney who has experience handling illegal strip search lawsuits. The specific details can change the framework for your case, and could mean the difference between filing a claim alleging a constitutional violation or a claim alleging a violation of your right to privacy under tort law.
Searches for Indictable vs. Non-Indictable Offenses
Some states distinguish between indictable and non-indictable claims when it comes to determining the legality of a strip search.
Even though the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Florence clarified that strip searches are permitted for indictable and non-indictable or minor offenses, states can go above the federal floor to decide that certain detainees or inmates have more rights to privacy.
Depending upon the state where your strip search occurred, it is critical to seek advice from a civil rights lawyer to determine whether the strip search violated the law.
In particular, even though the Florence ruling generally permitted strip searches for indictable and non-indictable offenses, you may have specific protections under state law that make a strip search unlawful in situations involving an inmate charged with or convicted of a non-indictable or minor offense.
Invasion of Privacy Claims and Liable Parties
As we explained above, in order to bring an invasion of privacy claim under the Fourth Amendment, it is crucial to know that these constitutional claims can only be brought against government employees, such as law enforcement officers, state or federal jail or prison employees, or Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers at airports.
Accordingly, if you are strip searched by a private security guard or officer at a retail establishment, for example, an invasion of privacy claim under the Fourth Amendment will not be applicable or viable. However, as we suggested, you may be eligible to bring a civil lawsuit against the responsible party.
Even if you do not have a constitutional claim, tort law in the state where the illegal strip search occurred may allow you to file a tort-based invasion of privacy lawsuit against the private security guard or the company that employed or hired the private security guard.
You should discuss the specific facts of your case with an experienced invasion of privacy lawyer who can help you to determine your rights and your options concerning an unlawful strip search.
Lawsuits and Settlements for Illegal Strip Searches
Many illegal strip searches have resulted in lawsuits, settlements, and verdicts across the country. Examples come from plaintiffs who were illegally strip searched by police after an arrest, in correctional facilities, at airports, and even in settings where the strip searches were conducted by private security guards. The following are examples of strip search lawsuits, settlements, and verdicts:
• Women prisoners in Wayne County Jail filed a lawsuit against the county alleging that they were subjected to unconstitutional searches that were humiliating, and that were conducted in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, according to a Fox 2 Detroit report. The women were subjected to searches in groups with other women, while they were menstruating, and in groups with HIV-positive women.
• Four inmates at Salem County Correctional Facility in New Jersey filed an illegal strip search claim alleging that they were “improperly classified as suicide risks, required to wear garments that exposed their genitals, and were strip searched several times a day in view of other prisoners and officers . . . absent any penological reason.”
• According to an article in Prison Legal News, Cook County settled two lawsuits for $60 million concerning illegal strip searches of Cook County, Illinois jail prisoners. The 2011 settlement meant that nearly 400,000 inmates were eligible for a remedy.
• Los Angeles County agreed to a $53 million settlement in 2019 over strip searches in which “tens of thousands of women . . . were placed in groups of up to 50 and ordered to expose their genitals while deputies shouted degrading comments,” according to a KTLA report.
• In 2015, a federal judge in New Jersey approved a $5.7 million settlement from Essex County jail for illegally strip searching detainees who had been “arrested for minor offenses like trespassing, failure to pay child support, and driving while intoxicated,” according to a com report. New Jersey does not permit strip searches for non-indictable offenses because the balance test says that security concerns do not outweigh privacy rights for those arrested for non-indictable offenses
• A Las Vegas grandmother filed a lawsuit against the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) after she was strip searched at an airport in Oklahoma, according to an article in New York Daily News. The woman who was strip searched explained, “I was told I needed to pull my pants and my underwear down to my knees and remove the item and show it to them for inspection.” The item was a feminine hygiene product, and the strip search occurred after the woman had TSA PreCheck clearance and properly informed TSA about a hip implant. She described the experience as “horrific,” “horrible,” and “degrading.”
Seek Advice from an Illegal Strip Search Attorney
While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that detainees in corrections facilities do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy that people have outside a jail or prison, and while people in airports may not have a reasonable expectation of full privacy, law enforcement officials do not have carte blanche to conduct strip searches.
Many strip searches that are conducted in jails and prisons, airports, and other facilities are illegal.
If you were strip searched and you believe the search was unlawful, you should speak with a civil rights lawyer who can discuss your options for filing a lawsuit.
Contact Buckfire Law to talk with an advocate about your case and to learn more about filing a claim for compensation. There are no legal fees whatsoever unless you win a settlement.
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