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Nevada Jail Strip Searches Before Release on Own Recognizance Unconstitutional

A Nevada federal district court has held that the Washoe County Sheriff Department?s (WCSD) policy of strip-searching all arrestees who self-surrender and are then released on their own recognizance (OR) is unconstitutional.

Before the Court was a summary judgment motion filed by five of the six John and Jane Doe plaintiffs in the case. WCSD?s policy states that ?unclothed searches will be performed by a Deputy of the same sex, only under the following circumstances ?when an inmate turns themselves into custody for an outstanding warrant (self surrender), court ordered commitment, weekender agreement, or any inmate brought into the facility, coming form any other jail, prison, or correctional facility (in-transits).?

Each of the plaintiffs either self-surrendered or were arrested on minor offenses and ordered released on OR. Despite the release orders, they were all subject to strip searches by jail personnel. Their lawsuit alleged municipal liability for deliberate indifference to the right to be free of unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment.

?Arrestees for minor offenses may be subjected to strip searches only if jail officials have a reasonable suspicion that the particular arrestee is carrying or concealing contraband or suffering from a communicable disease,? the Court said. That is because ?the intrusiveness of a body-cavity search cannot be overstated. Strip searches involving the visual exploration of body cavities is dehumanizing and humiliating.?

?Reasonable suspicion can be based on such factors as the nature of the offense, the arrestee?s appearance and conduct, and the prior arrest record,? the Court continued. However, in most instances the unreasonableness of a strip search conducted prior to an OR release determination is plain.

The district court found the plaintiffs had been booked and released on their own recognizance without being housed with the general jail population. This countered the WCSD?s contention that the strip searches were necessary due to concerns of ?cross-contamination,? in terms of prisoners and people who know they are going to jail and may have an opportunity to smuggle in contraband.

The Court held the strip searches prior to release on OR were unconstitutional and granted the plaintiffs? motion for summary judgment on June 20, 2007. See: Doe v. Balaam, 494 F.Supp.2d 1173 (D. Nev. 2007).

A week later the case settled for all but one of the plaintiffs for an undisclosed amount. The defendants then filed a motion for summary judgment against the remaining plaintiff, a transsexual arrestee who was strip searched at the jail, arguing that that search was lawfully conducted. The district court agreed, finding there was reasonable suspicion to justify a strip search of that specific plaintiff. Summary judgment was entered for the defendants and the case was dismissed. See: Doe v. Balaam, USDC D. Nev., Case No. 3:04-cv-00214-RAM (Dec. 19, 2007), 2007 WL 4545850.

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Related legal cases

Doe v. Balaam

Doe v. Balaam