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Oakland, CA Police Policy of In-Field Public Strip Searches Without Arrest or Warrant Found Unconstitutional

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California held on March 27, 2008 that the Oakland Police Department’s (OPD) policy permitting non-medical strip searches of detainees in the field, conducted in public view without either a warrant or an arrest, was partly unconstitutional. Three plaintiffs, all minorities, sued for damages and declaratory relief after OPD officers pulled their pants down and publicly inspected their genital and anal areas.

Darnell Foster, with two months remaining on his successful five-year term of unsupervised probation, was stopped by OPD. Upon telling the officers that he was on probation, he was handcuffed and pat searched in front of a market. No contraband was found and there was no evidence of illegal activity. Next, the police removed him from the back seat of the police car, bent him over the hood, pulled his pants down and publicly inspected his genitals and anus. Finding no contraband, the police then drove Foster two blocks and asked him to make an undercover drug purchase, which he refused to do. Before being released he was cited for loitering with intent to sell narcotics; the charge was dismissed when neither citing officer appeared in court.

Rafael Duarte was stopped by OPD while driving. He was handcuffed and taken in front of a nearby house, where he was publicly strip searched. After Duarte was placed in the police car, his friend was strip searched in direct view of a gathering crowd in the street. Duarte was taken to jail and cited two hours later, but no charges were filed.

Yancie Young was pulled over by OPD late one night and handcuffed. He was walked to the back of the car where OPD pulled down his pants and briefs. The officers shined a flashlight on his genitals for one minute. No contraband was found on Young or in his car, and no charges were filed.

Foster, Duarte and Young all filed Citizens’ Police Review Board complaints and civil rights complaints under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that OPD’s strip search policy was unconstitutional. The unique question of law presented was what privacy rights attach to a person who is stopped, but not arrested, for observed criminal behavior or for an exigent warrant. On the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, the district court found that OPD’s 1998 and 2004 strip search policies met most but not all constitutional requirements.

Notably, field strip searches must be conducted only upon reasonable suspicion that the arrestee harbors weapons or contraband such as drugs. Such searches presuppose a lawful arrest, and require probable cause to search that is independent of probable cause to arrest.
Moreover, body cavity searches must be administered by authorized medical personnel. The court found that OPD’s 1998 policy failed only the latter requirement.

However, the 2004 policy was worse; it did not require probable cause to search independent from probable cause to arrest. Additionally, the policy was unconstitutional because it permitted warrantless strip searches in the field. The district court therefore granted the plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment as to declaratory relief, but denied summary judgment as to liability to permit facts involving individual strip search violations to be developed at trial. See: Foster v. City of Oakland, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. C 05-3110 MHP; 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24610.

Previously, in January 2007, the district court had denied a motion to certify the suit as a class action, and on January 12, 2009 the court denied a renewed class action motion even though the number of lawsuits alleging improper strip searches by OPD officers had increased to 13, involving a total of 39 plaintiffs. See: Foster v. City of Oakland, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1970 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 12, 2009).

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Related legal cases

Foster v. City of Oakland

Foster v. City of Oakland