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MN: Jail Strip Search of Drug Suspect Held Constitutional

Jonathan Jacobson was arrested in 2009 for driving while under the influence of alcohol. He admitted to the Stewartsville, Minnesota police officer that he recently "smoked a bowl" of marijuana. Jacobson was booked in to the county jail and released. Prior to his release, however, jail guards conducted a strip search of Jacobson, which included a visual body cavity search. Jacobson sued, claiming that search violated his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

According to court records, officers searched Jacobson's car and person and found no contraband. At the county jail, where strip searches of booked prisoners are not mandatory and must be based on "reasonable suspicion," guards claim they determined that a strip search of Jacobson was necessary because "it was possible Mr. Jacobson had more illegal drugs on his person."

According to jail staff witnesses, after Jacobson was strip searched and no contraband was found, he was placed in a booking area populated by arrestees who will be housed in the jail and others who will be released. The jail claimed they had no way to separate the two groups and thus the need to strip search those they suspected of concealing contraband.

After Jacobson filed suit in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, defendants moved to dismiss, arguing they were entitled to qualified immunity because the strip search did not violate clearly established law in 2009.

The district court agreed and dismissed the case. On appeal to the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals, the district court's dismissal was affirmed.

"Jacobson's admission that he recently smoked a bowl of marijuana gave reasonable suspicion to believe that he could be secreting contraband in the private areas of his body," the court wrote. While noting that some cases have held that being under the influence of drugs did not provide reasonable suspicion for a strip search (i.e., Way v. Ventura, 445 F.3d 1157 (9th Cir. 2006)), it found that no court as of 2009 had addressed the constitutionality of a strip search based on an arrestee's recent use of drugs.

Finding that defendants were not on clear notice that recent drug use was insufficient to constitute reasonable suspicion, they were entitled to qualified immunity. See: Jacobson v. McCormick and Voltaire, No. 12-3530 (8th Cir. 08/14/2014).

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Related legal case

Jacobson v. McCormick and Voltaire