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New Trial Granted in Jail Strip Search Case Following Jury Verdict; $385,000 Settlement

On March 7, 2011, an Iowa federal district court granted a motion for a new trial after a jury awarded $259,155 to a woman who was improperly strip searched when she was arrested and booked into jail. Before another trial was held, a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling changed the law regarding strip searches of jail detainees, and the case settled in February 2013 for more than the jury award.

Maureen Rattray was arrested in Sioux City, Iowa for operating a vehicle while intoxicated – her first offense – which was a serious misdemeanor in violation of Iowa Criminal Code § 321J.2. She was taken to the Woodbury County Jail. During booking, two female jailers strip searched her twice and conducted body cavity searches.

The first strip search took place in a room with an open door so men standing outside were able to look in. Rattray began to cry, and one of the jailers mocked her and then ripped off her halter top. Because she was confused about whether or not she was wearing a tampon, one of the jailers allegedly shoved her against a wall and performed a cavity search of her vagina. Rattray was then forced to walk unclothed down a hallway to the last cell, passing men who looked at her while she attempted to cover her breasts and genitalia with a jail-issued jumpsuit that guards had not allowed her to put on.

Once in the cell, Rattray was placed on the bed and a jailer put a knee on her back while performing a second cavity search of her vagina and genital area, during which Rattray cried and screamed. Only then was she allowed to dress.

The strip and body cavity searches were performed in accordance with jail policy, which prohibited such searches for persons arrested for simple misdemeanors and scheduled (code section) violations if there was no probable cause to believe they were concealing a weapon or contraband, but required searches for persons arrested for any other offense.

Rattray and two other women who were subjected to strip searches at the Woodbury County Jail, Lisa Lambert and Lori Mathes, filed civil rights actions pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the county. Their cases, which were consolidated, alleged that the jail’s policy of conducting strip and body cavity searches without reasonable suspicion violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The district court granted partial summary judgment to Rattray, finding that her Fourth Amendment rights had been violated by the strip and body cavity searches. The case then went to a jury trial on damages.

Initially, the jury awarded damages of $5,000 for past emotional distress, $500 for future emotional distress, $3,155 for past medical expenses, $500 for future medical expenses and $250,000 in nominal damages. This was contrary to the court’s instruction not to award nominal damages unless no other damages were awarded, and in such case to only award $1. The judge explained the error and had the jury deliberate again. After ten minutes, the jury returned with an award of $250,000 for past emotional distress, $5,500 for future emotional distress, $3,155 for past medical expenses and $500 for future medical expenses.

The judge entered the verdict but the county filed a motion for a new trial, citing irregularities in the jury’s second damages award. The judge agreed that it was unable to ascertain why the jury awarded $5,000 to Rattray for past emotional distress in the first verdict, then ten minutes later awarded her $250,000 for past emotional distress in the second verdict. Because “it is impossible to determine what was on the jury’s mind,” the motion for a new trial was granted.

But before another trial was held, a 2012 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court found that every detainee, even those incarcerated on a non-indictable offense, who will be admitted to a jail’s “general population” may be required to undergo a close visual inspection while undressed without reasonable suspicion that he or she may have contraband. See: Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington, 132 S.Ct. 1510 (2012).

Lambert and Mathes’ cases had not yet gone to trial prior to the decision in Florence. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, county and jail officials filed motions for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of all three plaintiffs’ claims. The district court held in a December 10, 2012 order that “summary judgment in favor of the County is appropriate on all of the plaintiffs’ ‘no reasonable suspicion’ strip-search claims, in light of this [new] standard from Florence.”

However, Rattray and Mathes had also objected to the “manner” in which the strip searches were conducted; consequently, the district court found that those claims could survive Florence – which did not articulate what manner of strip searches might be deemed overly invasive or objectionable – and set their cases for trial. The court entered summary judgment against Lambert.

Shortly before the new trial on Rattray and Mathes’ remaining claims, the case settled in February 2013. According to one of the attorneys involved, the county settled with Rattray for $335,000, with Mathes for $40,000 and with Lambert (to forestall an appeal of the district court’s summary judgment order) for $10,000. See: Rattray v. Woodbury County, Iowa, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Iowa), Case No. 5:07-cv-04014-MWB.

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Related legal case

Rattray v. Woodbury County, Iowa