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Cavity Searches of Civil Commitment Patients for Cellphone Upheld by Eighth Circuit

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a strip search of 150 Minnesota civil commitment patients, but warned that it was “a close question of constitutional law,” which reached the outer limits of acceptable conduct.

On October 28, 2003, staff at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) found a cellphone case in an area that was accessible to patients, staff and visitors. A search of the area and review of surveillance videotapes did not reveal the phone, so MSOP officials ordered room and visual body cavity searches for 150 patients, none of whom were suspected of any wrongdoing. The phone was not found.

Acting on a tip from a patient, two days later the phone was found in a patient’s room in the protective isolation unit. He did not have access to the common area where the case was found, and it is not clear how it got there.

Luis A. Serna, an involuntarily committed “sexually dangerous person,” challenged the search in federal court. The district court determined that the search was reasonable and granted summary judgment to the defendants.

The Eighth Circuit found that a civilly committed person’s liberty interest is analogous to that of a pretrial detainee. Therefore, the search must be analyzed under the Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979) balancing test, rather than under an individualized suspicion analysis. However, “suspicion is relevant to the analysis … as part of the ‘scope,’ ‘manner,’ or ‘justification’ factors of the balancing test.”

Applying Bell, the court found that “the searches were not unreasonable. The defendants’ security and treatment concerns are genuine and serious; the searches, while invasive, were conducted privately, safely, and professionally; and the facility was reacting to a recurring problem.” Still, the court acknowledged “that a body cavity is not necessarily the first place reasonable persons normally would look for a cellphone.” The court warned that “Serna’s case [is] an outer limit under the Bell test” and while Defendants dodged a bullet, “deference under Bell is not without limits.” The court also noted that in Pearson v. Callahan, 129 S.Ct. 808 (2009), the court recently modified the mandatory, sequential, qualified immunity test of Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001), returning discretion to the lower courts to determine on a case-by-case basis the appropriate order of the analysis. See: Serna v. Goodno, 567 F.3d 944 (8th Cir. 2009).

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Related legal case

Serna v. Goodno