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Marshal Liable for Social Worker's Cavity Search

A Puerto Rican federal court granted a social worker summary judgment for a strip and cavity search after a civil contempt arrest.

Carmen Figueroa-Flores, 61, is a social worker who has no criminal record and had never been arrested. She has had physical custody of her paternal grandson, L.E.V., since his father died in 1994. In 2000, L.E.V.'s biological mother, Brenda L. Gonzalez Perez, agreed to Figueroa's legal custody of L.E.V., and Gonzalez was awarded open visitation.

A contentious custody dispute arose. On September 21, 2005, the court granted family court prosecutor Sanchez-Munoz's motion to hold Figueroa in contempt for not taking L.E.V. to court-ordered therapies.

While in court on September 22, 2005, Figueroa was arrested and taken to the Court marshals' basement office, where she was confined for several hours.

Marshal Marta Rivera-Reyes "ordered her to fully undress" then conducted "a strip search and visual cavity inspection of Figueroa. Because the holding cell where the strip search took place was visible from the marshals' office, several male marshals who were at the office were able to observe the search as it was conducted."

"During the search, Figueroa was nervous, and as a result thereof, she lost control of her bodily functions. She was later taken to the afternoon court session, handcuffed, and still soiled from the search."

Figueroa's attorney successfully argued that the civil contempt and arrest orders should be vacated and she was released. She then brought federal suit alleging that the search was improper.

The district court granted Figueroa's unopposed motion for partial summary judgment as to Rivera-Reyes' personal liability, concluding "that Rivera-Reyes' illegal conduct is blatant, insofar as there was no compelling reason for the cavity search, as she had no individualized reasonable suspicion that Figueroa was hiding weapons, drugs, or other contraband. As a result, Rivera-Reyes is personally liable for Plaintiff's damages." See: Figueroa-Flores v. Acevedo-Vila, USDC No. 06-1939 (SEC) (D. P.R. 2009).

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Related legal case

Figueroa-Flores v. Acevedo-Vila