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Strip and Body Cavity Searches for Civil Contempt Arrestee Unjustified

By Brandon Sample

On March 28, 2008, U.S. District Judge Salvador E. Casellas denied a motion for judgment on the pleadings in a civil rights action challenging a strip and body-cavity search.
Carmen Figueroa-Flores was involved in a custody dispute in the Caguas Court of Minors in Puerto Rico. After failing to appear for a scheduled hearing, Figueroa was arrested for civil contempt.

While Figueroa waited in a holding cell for several hours, Maribel Sanchez, a family law prosecutor involved in the custody case, ordered a strip and body-cavity search of Figueroa. The searches were conducted by a female marshal, Marta Rivera-Reyes.

Against Figueroa’s pleas, Rivera-Reyes ordered Figueroa to undress completely and “kneel down in order to open her body’s cavities for inspection and to assume positions that would permit the application of pressure to bother her vaginal area and her anus in order to force the ejection of any objects therein.” The searches were conducted in an area visible to other court officers and visitors to the holding area. Figueroa expelled bodily fluids and wet herself as a result of being ordered to push against her vaginal and anal areas, all under the view of other persons besides Marshal Rivera-Reyes.

Later that day, Figueroa was returned to court handcuffed and still soiled from the strip and cavity searches. Sanchez was present in the room. After procuring counsel, the contempt citation against Figueroa was vacated.

Figueroa sued Sanchez for ordering the strip and body- cavity searches. Sanchez moved for judgment on the pleadings. The court denied the motion.

There was “no reason to have regarded [Figueroa] as dangerous in any way or to think that she was concealing contraband or weapons,” the court held. Performing “unjustified strip and body-cavity searches,” the court explained, “is a blatant violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment constitutional rights.” See: Figueroa-Flores v. Acevedo-Vila, No. 06-1939 (D. Puerto 2008).

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Related legal case

Figueroa-Flores v. Acevedo-Vila