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An Old Story: District of Columbia Continues Overdetaining and Strip Searching Prisoners

A federal district court for the District of Columbia has, once again, certified a class action in a complaint that District of Columbia is over-detaining persons ordered released and strip searching them without individualized suspicion. The Court noted this is ?a case in which history insists on repeating itself.? PLN reported that history, which had identical allegations as in Bynum v. District of Columbia, 257 F.Supp.2d 1 (D.DC. 2002). See: PLN, October, 2006.

The Bynum litigation was resolved by a settlement agreement the Court approved in January 2006. In Bynum, the problem was that ?court releases? prisoners who were entitled to release after a court appearance were typically taken from court back to jail. There, they would await processing of their release, which involved acquiring the release order, verifying no warrants or detainers existed, and obtaining their personal property. That process resulted in a day, two, or a week or more of over-detention.

While they awaited for the ?out-processing? to be completed, the prisoners were taken back to general population. This required they be strip searched. The Bynum settlement required those ordered released to be held at a holding facility on the grounds of D.C. General Hospital.
Sometime in December 2005, ?the cracks in the system began to widen, with more and more inmates who were entitled to release slipping through and being returned to? jail.

Once there, they encountered the same dance as the class in Bynum. The named plaintiffs in the new lawsuit claim they were over-detained four to 29 days, and underwent strip searches. The District of Columbia, amazingly, moved ?to dismiss for failure to state a claim,? or for summary judgment. The Court held summary judgment is premature.

The Court said there is a ?substantial body of law? to support claims that over-detention, even for short periods, is unconstitutional.

The District urged the Court to rule that over-detention for ?certain delays, at least those of a day or two, are per se reasonable.? The Court, however, held that the operative wording in all precedents on the issue is ?hours.? Thus, ?the great weight of precedent suggests that release must occur within a matter of hours after the right to it accrues, and that after some period of hours?not days?a presumption of unreasonableness and thus unconstitutionality will set in.?

The Court held that sufficient allegations were stated for valid claims under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Moreover, the allegations are essentially the same as those in Bynum, and they were deemed sufficient to survive a dismissal motion. As such, the Court denied the motion to dismiss.

It then certified a hybrid class action. Specifically, it certified a class for injunctive and declaratory relief with no opt-out right. It also certified an opt-out class for monetary damages. See: Barnes v. District of Columbia,. 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20856.

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Related legal case

Barnes v. District of Columbia