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Washington Strip Search Statute Narrowly Construed; Inapplicable to Arrestees Confined Pending Release

The Washington State Court of Appeals held that state law does not authorize the automatic strip search of arrestees in custody who are pending release on bail or personal recognizance.

Abra Plemmons was charged in Pierce County, Washington with forgery. During a traffic stop in her home state of Montana, Plemmons was taken into custody on the Washington warrant. She posted bail and traveled to Washington to resolve the charge.

At her bail hearing, "Plemmons asked for release on her personal recognizance because she was the victim of identity theft, she had come to Washington to appear in court on her own volition, and she had already posted $10,000 bail when arrested on this charge in Montana. The court denied her request, imposed bail of $5,000, and ordered that she be taken into custody.?

Plemmons was booked into the Pierce County jail and subjected to an automatic strip search pursuant to state law and jail policy. Less than five hours later she was released on bond.

The charges were ultimately dismissed once it was determined ?that Plemmons was the innocent victim of identity theft, and not a forger.? Plemmons then brought suit in state court alleging that the strip search had violated her rights. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

The trial court granted Plemmons' summary judgment motion, concluding that RCW 10.79.120 and RCW 10.79.130 were unconstitutional as applied to Plemmons because ?they permitted the strip search of a person who has been ?committed? to jail as a pretrial detainee for purposes of merely assuring presence at trial, without regard to the nature of the crime or other individualized suspicion.? The defendants appealed.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) appeared as Amicus Curiae, arguing that the court need not address the constitutional issue but rather ?should construe RCW 10.79.120 as inapplicable to arrestees in custody pending release on bail or personal recognizance.? The court agreed.

Following an extensive statutory construction analysis, the appellate court determined that the Legislature had intended ?to restrict warrantless strip searches of persons, such as Plemmons, arrested for a non-violent offense, who are to be released on bail before trial or conviction.? Accordingly, the court held ?that Plemmons did not meet the statutory criteria for a warrantless strip search and, therefore, the County acted without authorization in strip searching her under its automatic strip search policy.?

The appeals court affirmed ?the trial court?s grant of summary judgment to Plemmons, on alternative ground, that the County?s automatic strip search policy, under which the County justified strip searching her, fell outside the statutorily granted limits of RCW 10.79.120, .130, and .140.? The appellate court vacated the lower court?s ?ruling that the County did not violate RCW 10.79.120 and .130,? and declined to address the constitutionality of the statute. See: Plemmons v. Pierce County, 134 Wash.App. 449, 140 P.3d 601 (Wash. App. Div. 2, 2006).

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Related legal case

: Plemmons v. Pierce County