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Tenth Circuit: No Qualified Immunity for Strip Search

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of qualified immunity to a deputy who conducted an improper strip search of a woman confined due to mistaken identity.

On April 18, 2005, Lakewood, Colorado police responded to an altercation between two women at a Walgreens store. Officers spoke with the alleged victim, Alexandria Silvas, who said she fought with her girlfriend, Mercedes Archuleta, who was no longer at the scene.

Silvas said she was not injured and did not want to press charges, but police obtained an arrest warrant for “Mercedes Archuleta” for harassment. The warrant affidavit contained identifying information from motor vehicles records for a 46-year-old Mercedes Archuleta—even though Silvas reported she was 42 or 43 years old—and from criminal history for Phyllis Rivera, a woman who used the name Mercedes Archuleta as an alias.

During a June 12, 2005 traffic stop, 46-year-old Mercedes Archuleta, a passenger in the vehicle, was arrested on the outstanding harassment warrant even though she was not the woman who was involved in the Walgreens incident.

Archuleta was frisked, handcuffed and transported to the Jefferson County, Colorado Detention Facility. She was frisked two more times in the waiting area. Archuleta pleaded mistaken identity with booking officer Deputy Mandelko.

“After…Mandelko found the correct file on her computer, it was apparent to her that Ms. Archuleta did not have the moles or tattoos that the computer file stated she was supposed to have…Deputy Mandelko asked Ms. Archuleta ‘where are your moles and tattoos?’ and told a receptionist ‘this isn’t her.’”

Despite knowing Archuleta was the wrong person, was not to be placed in general population, and had not been charged with a crime involving weapons or drugs, Mandelko strip searched her. While standing naked, Archuleta started lactating and attempted to cover herself, but Mandelko ordered her to put her arms down.

“Mandelko told a male jailer to cut a maxi-pad in half for Ms. Archuleta to use.” Neither guard wore gloves while handling the pad, and both mocked Archuleta continuously during the incident.

Mandelko told Archuleta that she was innocent. After the search, Archuleta was locked in a cell by herself until her husband posted bail, and she was released several hours later. The charges against her were eventually dismissed.

Archuleta sued in federal court alleging that her detention and strip search violated her constitutional rights. The district court granted Defendants qualified immunity on most of Archuleta’s claims. The court denied qualified immunity to Mandelko, however, on the strip search claim, holding “that Deputy Mandelko could have violated Ms. Archuleta’s clearly established constitutional rights because Ms. Archuleta had been patted down before the strip search, she was held alone in a cell while awaiting bail, and Deputy Mandelko had a subjective belief in Ms. Archuleta’s innocence.”

The Tenth Circuit affirmed, observing that Circuit law “makes clear that the circumstances alleged in this case do not provide justification for a strip search. See, e.g., Foote v. Spiegel, 118 F3d1416, 1425 (10th Cir. 1997); Cottrell v. Kaysville City, Utah, 994F2d730, 734-35 (10th Cir. 1993); and Hill v. Bogans, 735 F2d 391, 394 (10th Cir. 1984). The Court concluded that Archuleta “satisfied the first step of the two-step qualified immunity inquiry by demonstrating that her constitutional rights were violated.” Turning to the second step—whether her rights were clearly established—the Court observed that it had previously determined in Warner v. Grand County, 57F3d 962 (10th Cir. 1995) that, on January 24, 1991, “it was clearly established in this circuit that a brief intermingling with the general jail population does not justify a strip search absent reasonable suspicion of drugs or contraband.” The Court then held that “by implication…a detainee who is not placed in the general population cannot be strip searched if the searching officer does not at least have reasonable suspicion that the detainee possesses concealed weapons, drugs, or contraband.” Applying this holding, the court concluded, “based upon the allegations in the complaint…that the law in these circumstances was clearly established…Deputy Mandelko violated this law by strip searching Ms. Archuleta and is not entitled to qualified immunity on these facts.” See: Archuleta v. Wagner, 523 F.3d 1228 (10th Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

Archuleta v. Wagner