Fourth Circuit Finds Strip Searches and Delousing of Arrestees Constitutional
by Lonnie Burton
On November 14, 2014, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the defendants in a case brought by two former prisoners who alleged that strip search and delousing procedures at two regional jails violated the Fourth Amendment.
The consolidated case involved prisoners booked into different jails in West Virginia. Michael Cantley was arrested in 2008 on a domestic violence charge and committed by a magistrate to the Western Regional Jail. Upon entering the facility, Cantley was rebellious and placed in a restraint chair. After he calmed down, he was released from the chair and given a visual strip search by a male guard. The guard then used a spray bottle to apply a delousing solution to Cantley’s body; after showering, he was placed in a holding cell in the general housing area.
Floyd Teter was arrested in 2010 for littering and obstructing an officer. He did not see a magistrate and was brought directly to the Tygart Valley Regional Jail. Teter was then visually strip searched by a male guard, who used a “garden sprayer to apply delousing solution to the hairy areas of Teter’s body.” After showering, he was placed in a holding cell with another arrestee; he was then brought before a magistrate, who ordered his release. Teter spent a total of eleven hours in custody.
Both men sued the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority (WVRJA), a state agency that operates ten regional jails, contending that the strip search and delousing procedures violated their rights under the Fourth Amendment. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, holding that neither procedure was unconstitutional. Cantley and Teter appealed.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment order, but on different grounds than the district court. The Court of Appeals held that the doctrine of qualified immunity protected the defendants because their “conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
Critical to its decision, the appellate court wrote, were several factors, including that both men were strip searched by a single person of the same gender in a private room, and that neither was touched during the process. The Fourth Circuit also found that there were “significant security justifications” for the strip search policy, including preventing the flow of drugs and weapons into the jails. Because both Cantley and Teter were held in areas with other prisoners, the strip searches were justified.
The Court of Appeals also rejected the plaintiffs’ contention that the delousing procedure was an unreasonable search and seizure. While recognizing that delousing was “undoubtedly unwelcome,” the Court held it was justified as it was also done in a private room with only one guard of the same gender, and did not require physical contact. Further, “jails have a significant interest in reducing the outbreak of lice.” The fact that delousing is constitutional, the appellate court wrote, was “beyond debate.”
While not part of the holding in this case, the Fourth Circuit noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has questioned whether “indiscriminate strip searching of detainees held outside of the general population” is constitutional. On this issue, the Court of Appeals observed that the WVRJA jails had previously ceased a blanket policy of strip searching and delousing arrestees not destined for placement in the general population. See: Cantley v. The West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority, 771 F.3d 201 (4th Cir. 2014).
In a contrary ruling, in November 2014 the Sixth Circuit found that claims of group strip searches and delousing at a jail in Ohio stated a cause of action, though the facts at issue were different in that case. [See: PLN, June 2015, p.45].
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Related legal case
Cantley v. The West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority
|771 F.3d 201 (4th Cir. 2014)
|Court of Appeals