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Kentucky Juvenile Prisoner Was Properly Strip Searched for Probable Cause

The U.S. Western District of Kentucky determined a strip search of a
juvenile was reasonable if there was probable cause.

Katherine Reynolds, a troubled youth, had been arrested and found guilty of
possession of marijuana, second degree forgery and fraudulent use of a
credit card. The Kentucky juvenile Court ordered the juvenile offender
removed from her parents care and placed her under the supervision of the
Kentucky Cabinet for Human Resources, as a public offender. Reynolds was
sent to Bellewood State Prison for children.

Once at Bellewood, Reynolds was placed in Haney Cottage with other children
her age. At some point Reynolds and another girl were laughing and joking
and one of the guards decided the girls were having too much fun and
therefore must be on drugs. Both girls' rooms were searched. A baggie with
plant residue and a glass pipe was found.

The girls were separated. A Jefferson County female police officer was
contacted for the purpose of searching the girls for drugs. When she
arrived a Bellewood official ordered a body-cavity search done to the
girls. The officer refused to perform the search without a warrant, but did
a visual strip search. No contraband was found on either youth.
Reynolds filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that her constitutional
rights were violated during the warrantless strip search. Both parties
filed for summary judgment.

The U.S. District Court held that the female officer who conducted the
strip search was entitled to qualified immunity based upon Dobrowlskyj v.
Jefferson County, 823 F.2d 955 (6th Cir 1987) which holds that prison
authorities have authority to search prisoners and detainees. The Court
held that Reynolds, being a ward of the state and in protective custody,
should have a lessened expectation of her privacy. The Court cited Bell v.
Wolfish, 99 S.Ct. 1861 (1979) to support this ruling. The court pointed out
that a detention facility is a unique place fraught with serious security
dangers and ordered Reynolds suit be dismissed with prejudice. See:
Reynolds v. City of Anchorage, 225 F.Supp. 754 (W.D.KY 2002)

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Related legal case

Reynolds v. City of Anchorage

REYNOLDS v. CITY OF ANCHORAGE, 225 F.Supp.2d 754 (W.D.Ky. 10/04/2002)

[1] United States District Court, Western District of Kentucky, Louisville Division

[2] CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:97CV-446-H

[3] 225 F. Supp.2d 754, 2002

[4] October 4, 2002


[6] Kathleen T.B. Bailey, David A. Friedman, Louisville, Ky, for Plaintiff.

[7] Jeffrey C. Mando, Adams, Stepner, Woltermann & Dusing, Pllc, Covington, Ky, Dave Whalin, Landrum & Shouse, David Lindsay Leightty, Louisville, Ky, for Defendants.

[8] The opinion of the court was delivered by: John G. Heyburn II, Chief Judge


[10] Plaintiff, Katherine Reynolds, filed suit against, Defendant, Officer Leslie Watson, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that Defendant and others violated her constitutional rights during a 1997 warrantless strip search of Plaintiff and four other juveniles at the Bellewood Presbyterian Home for Children ("Bellewood"). All other Defendants have settled and only the claims against Watson remain. The basic underlying facts are undisputed and the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. After having considered the issues, the Court determines that Defendant is entitled to qualified immunity.

[11] I.

[12] In August 1996, the Fayette County, Kentucky Juvenile Court found Plaintiff guilty of possession of marijuana, second degree forgery, and fraudulent use of a credit card. As a result, the Juvenile Court ordered Plaintiff removed from her parents' custody and turned over to the Kentucky Cabinet for Human Resources as a public offender. The State subsequently placed Plaintiff in Bellewood, a facility approved by the State to provide care and treatment to juveniles. Plaintiff resided in Haney Cottage while at Bellewood. Haney Cottage residents, including Plaintiff, admitted having previously used drugs while living at the cottage.

[13] On the evening of June 8, 1997, Plaintiff and two other Haney Cottage residents went for a walk around the Bellewood grounds. Upon the girls' return, two on-duty staff persons observed the girls acting strangely and suspected that drugs might be the reason. Around this same time, Anchorage Police Officer Toby Lewis telephoned the staff members at the cottage to make sure everything was alright. The staff members shared their concern that some of the girls might be under the influence of drugs and might have drugs in their possession. Officer Lewis proceeded to Haney Cottage to assess the situation. He was joined by Officer James Ennis. Thereafter, they decided to search the residents' rooms for the presence of drugs. With the assistance of the staff members, the two officers placed the five residents in the living room of the cottage. The girls were instructed to remain in the living room with one staff member, while the two officers and the other staff member searched the girls' rooms. During the search, a third Anchorage police officer, Timothy Young, arrived on the scene. Although the room searches did not reveal the presence of actual drugs, the officers did locate several items they believed to be associated with drug use 1) a plastic baggy was located in Plaintiff's room which the officers believed may have contained drugs; 2) prescription pills were found in another resident's garbage can; 3) a baggy with a plant substance residue the officers thought might be marijuana; and 4) a glass vial which the officers believed may have been used as a pipe were located in a third resident's room.

[14] At some point, Plaintiff insinuated to the staff members and the officers that she might have drugs hidden in her undergarments. Plaintiff's statements coupled with the suspicious items located in the girls' rooms and their strange behavior convinced the officers that the girls needed to be searched to ensure that there were no drugs in the cottage. The male officers did not want to perform the searches themselves and decided to request the Jefferson County Police Department to dispatch a female officer to Haney Cottage for the purpose of searching the girls for drugs. Defendant was the female officer selected. Upon her arrival, Defendant observed the girls running throughout the cottage, playing loud music, and yelling. The Anchorage officers said that they had searched the girls' rooms and located what they believed to be drug paraphernalia. She was also informed that the officers suspected that the girls might be harboring drugs in their undergarments or other clothing. Defendant indicated that she could not perform a body cavity search without a warrant, but that she would perform a visual strip search of the girls to look for drugs.

[15] Defendant conducted the searches one at a time. Each girl was searched in her own room with a female staff member present. Defendant instructed each girl to first to remove her blouse and bra, put them back on, and then to remove her bottom clothing and underwear and bend over to allow a visual inspection of her rectal area. Defendant never physically touched any of the girls during the searches. No drugs were located on any of the girls during the strip searches.

[16] II.

[17] Whether qualified immunity applies to a particular public official is a question of law for the court to determine. See Daugherty v. Campbell, 935 F.2d 780, 783 (6th Cir. 1991). The Sixth Circuit has developed a three-part analysis to evaluate claims of qualified immunity:


First, we determine whether a constitutional violation occurred*fn1; second, we determine whether the right that was violated was a clearly established right of which a reasonable person would have known; finally, we determine whether the plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts, and supported the allegations by sufficient evidence, to indicate that what the official allegedly did was objectively unreasonable in light of the clearly established constitutional rights.

[19] Williams v. Mehra, 186 F.3d 685, 691 (6th Cir. 1999).


"[T]he rationale for the qualified immunity historically granted to the police rests on the difficult and delicate judgments these officers must often make." Foley v. Connelie, 435 U.S. 291, 299 (1978). "A public official is entitled to qualified immunity for conduct in performing discretionary functions so long as that conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable officer would have known." Wegener v. City of Covington, 933 F.2d 390, 392 (6th Cir. 1991). "If the law was not clearly established, it is impossible to find that the defendant knew that the law forbade his or her conduct." Daugherty, 935 F.2d at 783. Thus, the Court must determine whether the law was clearly established in 1997 that a police officer must obtain a warrant before performing a visual strip search of a juvenile residing in a state detention center where the officer had reason to suspect that the juvenile might be hiding drugs on her person. To make this determination, this Court must consult the decisions of the Supreme Court, then the decisions of the Sixth Circuit and other courts within the Sixth Circuit, and finally the decisions of other circuits. See id. at 784.


The Court begins its analysis with the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment provides: "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." U.S. CONST. amend. IV. The Fourth Amendment, applied to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment, protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures by government officials. All warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable. See Daughenbaugh v. City of Tiffin, 150 F.3d 594, 603 (6th Cir. 1998). However, the Supreme Court has carved out a number of exceptions to the warrant requirement. The leading exceptions are: "searches incident to a valid arrest, seizure of items in plain view, exigent circumstances, consent searches, vehicle searches, container searches, inventory searches, border searches, searches at sea, administrative searches, and searches in which the special needs of law enforcement make the probable cause and warrant requirements impracticable." U.S. v. Haddix 239 F.3d 766, 767 n. 2 (6th Cir. 2001). Here, Defendant relies upon the "special needs of law enforcement" exception.

[22] Plaintiff relies primarily on an unpublished Sixth Circuit opinion, Toles v. Friedman, 238 F.3d 424, No. 99-4031, 2000 WL 1871683 (6th Cir. Dec. 11, 2000), for the proposition that Defendant is not entitled to qualified immunity. However, even if an officer had access to that opinion, she would be hard pressed to apply it directly in our circumstances.*fn2 In Toles three female juveniles were detained by mall security guards after trying on several bathing suits. Id. at *1. The store clerk and the security guard suspected the girls of attempting to shoplift one of the bathing suits. Id. As a result, the juveniles were taken to the mall security office where the security guard questioned them about his suspicions. Id. at *2. When the girls refused to admit that they attempted to steal a bathing suit, the guard requested assistance from a female security guard and a male city police officer. Id. The female security guard conducted a warrantless visual strip search of the juveniles for the purpose of discovering whether the girls were hiding the bathing suit underneath their clothing. Id. No bathing suit was found on the girls. Id. In holding that the defendants were not entitled to rely on the doctrine of qualified immunity the court stated that "a reasonable law enforcement officer, in the circumstances presented, could not believe that exigent circumstances justified the warrantless strip searches of the young women." Id. at *4.


The circumstances here are significantly different from those in Toles. In Toles, the officers relied upon the exigent circumstances exception rather than the special need or circumstance exception. The special circumstances exception permits a state actor to constitutionally conduct a warrantless search in certain situations on less than probable cause "when special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, make the warrant and probable-cause requirement impracticable." Vernonia School District v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646, 653 (1995). It recognizes that the basic commandment of the Fourth Amendment is that searches and seizures be reasonable, and that in certain circumstances and contexts warrantless searches are constitutionally permissible. See New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 336 (1985). Defendant contends that the special circumstances exception is applicable here because Plaintiff was a juvenile ward of the State living in a detention center who might have drugs on her person.

[24] While these general circumstances appear to be those which might qualify for the exception, neither the parties, nor the Court, have located any persuasive case law dealing with this exact issue from the Sixth Circuit, the Supreme Court, or any other court. Nevertheless, some decisions could act as a guide for Defendant. From an analysis of those cases the Court concludes that even an officer with perfect knowledge of the law might reasonably conclude that a warrantless strip search was permissible in these special circumstances.