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Fulton County’s Blanket Strip Search Policy Unconstitutional

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held unconstitutional a blanket strip search policy of arrestees as part of their point-of-booking into jail, of detainees who posted bond or were ordered released at the jail before booking was started or completed, and of detainees who return from a court appearance after having been ordered released in state court.

That ruling came in the appeal filed by various defendants involved with Georgia’s Fulton County Jail. That appeal came after the federal district court granted in part and denied in part the defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint brought by the plaintiff class, which was broke into three groups determined by their status.

The first issue resolved by the Eleventh Circuit involved Sheriff Myron Freeman’s Eleventh Amendment immunity defense. The Court found, consistent with its previous precedents, that a Georgia Sheriff acts for the state, the state has a direct and substantial control over the Sheriff, funds for the jail are mandated by state law, and the state pays any liability for adverse judgments. Thus, Georgia Sheriffs act as an arm of the state when they promulgate jail policies and procedures, entitling them to sovereign immunity.

The Court then turned to determine whether Sheriff Barrett is entitled to qualified immunity for monetary damages in her individual capacity. First, the Court determined the constitutionality of the blanket strip searches. Under the Court’s precedents, “an arrestee to be detained in the general jail population has a constitutional right under the Fourth Amendment to be free from strip searches conducted without reasonable suspicion that the detainee is concealing weapons, drugs, or other contraband.

When determining whether reasonable suspicion existed for the strip search, it is immaterial whether the specific arresting officer or jailer actually and subjectively had reasonable suspicion, or whether anyone at the time actually conducted a reasonable suspicion analysis. Instead, the inquiry is whether, given the circumstances, reasonable suspicion objectivity existed to justify the search. This test is made by looking to the offense charged.

Whether the offense is a crime of violence depends not on the offense’s classification as a felony or misdemeanor, but instead on the elements of the offense for which the arrestee was arrested and charged. The Court affirmed dismissal for those plaintiffs whose charges involved drugs, violence, or weapons and reversed dismissal for those whose did not.

That test applied to the arrestees strip searched at booking and those who had been ordered released or had posted bond at the jail. For those ordered released by the state court, there were no charges pending when the search occurred so the element test did not apply. Further, those latter persons were under constant supervision to and from the jail to the courthouse, and they were not permitted to have contact with anyone other than the Sheriff’s deputies and their attorneys. The Court found the blanket strip search was unconstitutional.

It further held the law on the issue was clearly established at the time of the searches. The Court’s previous precedents had settled that reasonable suspicion for the searches was required before they could occur. This was especially so for the groups that had been ordered released by a judicial officer or court or by posting of bond. Thus, Sheriff Barrett was not entitled to qualified immunity.

The Court, finally, held that the plaintiffs had no claim against the City of Atlanta or Fulton County as they have no control over the policies of the Fulton County Jail. The district court’s order was affirmed in part and reversed in part. See: Powell v. Barrett, 496 F.3d 1288 (11th Cir. 2007).

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Related legal case

Powell v. Barrett