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Qualified Immunity Upheld in Maryland Prison Employees’ Suit over Strip Search Following Positive Ion Drug Scan

Employees and independent contractors at the Maryland Correctional Center Training Center were subjected to search by a portable ion scanning machine in an attempt to interdict drugs being smuggled into the facility. Eight of them had positive scans. They were then subjected to "strip and visual body cavity" searches and their cars were searched by a drug dog. No drugs were found. They were also required to submit to a urine test. All passed.

Plaintiffs alleged that they were not allowed to explain how they might have innocently come into contact with miniscule amount of drugs and that the strip and car searches were performed even if the amount of drugs detected was tiny. They filed a civil rights lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court. Defendant prison officials filed a motion for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion and plaintiffs appealed.

The Fourth Circuit court of appeals held that defendants were entitled to qualified immunity because there was no clearly-established federal law that would make them believe that a positive indication of drugs using an ion scanner was not reasonable suspicion to conduct more intrusive searches consistent with the Fourth Amendment. The court noted that the only courts which had reviewed the ion scanner had concluded that it was a reliable method of detecting snuggled drugs. Although it specifically did not hold that a positive ion scanner result will always justify a strip search, the court did hold that it was not clearly established that positive ion scanner results could not justify a strip search. Therefore, defendants were entitled to qualified immunity and the judgment of the district court was affirmed. See: Braun v. Maynard, 652 F.3d 557 (4th Cir. 2011), No. 10-1401.

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Related legal case

Braun v. Maynard