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Sixth Circuit: Group Strip Searches and Delousing at Ohio Jail State Claim

Sixth Circuit: Group Strip Searches and Delousing at Ohio Jail State Claim

by David Reutter

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a proposed class-action complaint filed on behalf of pretrial detainees at the Cleveland House of Correction, which alleged it was unreasonable for the jail to 1) spray them with delousing solution instead of allowing them to self-apply it, and 2) conduct strip searches and delousing in groups of detainees (or with one detainee spraying another), stated a cause of action.

In its November 10, 2014 ruling, the Court of Appeals reversed an Ohio federal district court’s order dismissing the detainees’ suit and denying leave to amend their complaint. The district court found an amendment would be to no avail because the claims were foreclosed by Florence v. Bd. of Chosen Freeholders of Cnty of Burlington, 132 S.Ct. 1510 (2012). [See: PLN, July 2011, p.32].

In Florence, the plaintiff was subjected to a visual body search and required “to shower with a delousing agent.” The Florence majority held that institutional “security imperatives” for conducting visual strip searches of everyone admitted to a jail without exception outweighed the need for individual suspicion and the intrusion into detainees’ rights.

In this case, jailers at the Cleveland House of Correction strip searched detainees in the presence of other detainees and subjected them to the “hose treatment,” which involved guards spraying “delousing solution from a pressurized metal canister on the detainee’s naked body, including on the detainee’s exposed genitals.” One of the detainees said the delousing solution had “penetrat[ed] her anus.”

The Sixth Circuit held the district court “underappreciated how much more invasive the jail’s conduct actually was” compared to that in Florence. Here, the “hose treatment” involved the guards’ “intentional physical touching of a detainee’s intimate body parts.”

The appellate court noted that “[g]iving a detainee the opportunity to self-apply the delousing agent permits her to weigh the alternatives and choose the option that enables her to comply with the delousing requirement while protecting her self-dignity.” Further, an alternative to group strip searches is to conduct them in private. The Court of Appeals acknowledged the defendants’ objections that such a practice may be impractical, but that argument presented “factual disputes [that] are appropriately resolved through discovery, not on the pleadings.”

The district court’s order was reversed and remanded with instructions to grant the plaintiffs leave to file their proposed second amended complaint. See Williams v. City of Cleveland, 771 F.3d 945 (6th Cir. 2014).

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Related legal case

Williams v. City of Cleveland