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Fifth Circuit Upholds Blanket Strip Search Prohibition in Texas Jails

On September 22, 2010, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that employees of the Wood County, Texas sheriff’s department had violated Chandra Rae Jimenez’s Fourth Amendment rights when they strip searched her at the county jail in 2005 after she was arrested for hindering apprehension, a Class A misdemeanor. That decision was later upheld by the appellate court sitting en banc.

Jimenez had been accused of hiding her husband in the trunk of their car when the bar they jointly operated was raided by officers with the sheriff’s department and Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC).

The Jimenezes filed a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in U.S. District Court. Prior to trial, the TABC entered into a settlement agreement and was dismissed from the suit. A jury awarded Ms. Jimenez $55,000 in actual damages plus punitive damages of $5,000. The district court then awarded the Jimenezes $157,394.60 in attorney fees and $37,153.95 in costs. [See: PLN, Jan. 2011, p.43].

The county appealed both the judgment and fee award.

Acknowledging a circuit split on the issue, but feeling itself bound by a prior panel decision, the Fifth Circuit held that misdemeanor hindering apprehension was a minor offense which did not create reasonable suspicion that the person committing the offense would be carrying weapons or contraband, for Fourth Amendment purposes.

The Court of Appeals rejected the county’s argument that the fact that Jimenez was arrested in a high drug use area justified the strip search, as she had a legitimate reason for being in that area since it was where her bar was located. Nor could the nature of the charge justify the invasive strip search, because she was arrested for concealing an individual, not weapons or contraband. Thus, there was no reasonable suspicion to justify her strip search at the jail.

The Fifth Circuit also held the fees and costs awarded were not excessive. As the claims against the TABC and the county were closely intertwined, the fees did not have to be reduced by a certain number of hours devoted to pursuing the TABC claims. The appellate court further found that the attorney fees awarded were reasonable. Therefore, the judgment of the district court was affirmed. See: Jimenez v. Wood County, 621 F.3d 372 (5th Cir. 2010).
The defendants moved for rehearing en banc, which was granted. In a lengthy October 13, 2011 ruling, the en banc appellate court reached the same conclusion as the Fifth Circuit panel, again affirming the district court. The en banc court rejected the defendants’ challenge to a jury instruction that said “reasonable suspicion” was required to strip search Ms. Jimenez, deeming the county had not demonstrated reversible error. See: Jimenez v. Wood County, 660 F.3d 841 (5th Cir. 2011).

Note that the Supreme Court has since upheld the practice of suspicionless searches of jail detainees, even those arrested for minor offenses, in a separate case. See: Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington, 132 S.Ct. 1510 (2012).

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Related legal case

Jimenez v. Wood County