By: Lauren Durr Emery

Are Corrections Officers Entitled to Qualified Immunity from Suits Involving Strip Searches of Arrestees not Charged in Crimes Involving Weapons, Drugs, or Felony Violence?

In Dana West v. Susan Murphy, the Fourth Circuit heard a challenge regarding the constitutionality of strip searches of arrestees at Baltimore Central Intake and Booking Center.

Arrestees Subjected to Strip Search at Baltimore Central Intake and Booking Center

The named plaintiffs in this case represent a certified class of individuals who were arrested between May 12, 2002 and April 30, 2008 “(a) on charges [or in cases] not involving weapons, drugs, or felony violence, and (b) strip searched (c) prior to or without presentment before a court commissioner or other judicial officer.”  Following the strip searches, the arrestees remained in holding rooms while they waited to see a court commissioner.  Under Maryland law, the detainees must appear before a court commissioner within twenty-four hours of arrest.

The holding rooms at Central Intake may contain up to twenty-five arrestees at a time.  However, over the course of their stay, arrestees may encounter many more people due to the coming and going of individuals into the holding room.  The named plaintiffs encountered 55, 36, 35, and 20 people respectively who had been arrested for a wide variety of crimes.

Determining Whether an Officer Receives Qualified Immunity is a Two-Pronged Inquiry

To overcome a correction officer’s right to qualified immunity, a plaintiff must demonstrate: (1) That the facts make out a violation of a constitutional right; and (2) that the the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the defendant’s alleged misconduct.

No Clearly Established Law Regarding Strip Searches of Detainees Held Outside the General Population During the Time in Question.

The Court stressed that the temporal requirement for qualified immunity is important because it is closely related to the issue of notice.  Thus, the Supreme Court decision (Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington) cited by the defendants and decided almost four years after the class of plaintiffs closed, does not demonstrate whether or not the law on jail strip searches was clearly established at the time the alleged searches were conducted.

The Court also distinguished three cases (finding strip searches unconstitutional) cited by the plaintiffs.  The Court stated that the searches in question “were unconstitutional because there were no security reasons strong enough to justify the intrusive and public nature of the searches.”  In contrast, the Court found the searches conducted at Central Booking, to have been conducted in a more private setting and to have been justified by heightened security concerns.

The Court ultimately concluded that the state of the law at the time of the alleged search was undeveloped and thus it would be impermissible to “tax correctional officers with clairvoyance.”

Correctional Officers Entitled to Qualified Immunity 

Without needing to reach the constitutionality of the alleged searches, the Court found that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

Though in agreement with the holding, Judge Wynn wrote a separate concurrence to stress the importance of addressing the legality of strip searching detainees held outside the general population.  Since the Court did not reach the merits of plaintiffs’ constitutional claim, Wynn suggests that correctional officers are left adrift without guidance regarding the constitutionality of such searches.