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Third Circuit Okays Blanket Strip-Search Policy for Juvenile Detainees

In a decision filed September 15, 2015, the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that a juvenile detention center policy which required strip searches of all detainees upon intake, regardless of the seriousness of their crimes, did not violate the constitutional prohibition on unreasonable searches. The decision reversed a Pennsylvania federal district court order denying summary judgment to state officials who asserted their policy was legal.

This case began in July of 2009 when 12-year-old J.B. was arrested three weeks after neighbors complained that he threatened their daughter by shooting a homemade flame thrower at her. Upon J.B.'s intake at the Lancaster County Youth Intervention Center (LYIC), he was strip searched pursuant to LYIC policy. According to court records, the purpose of LYIC's blanket strip-search policy was to look for signs of "injuries, markings, skin conditions, signs of abuse, or further contraband."

J.B. was housed at LYIC for four days when he was released to his parents after a court hearing in which J.B. agreed to write a letter of apology to his victim. Nearly three years later, J.B.'s parents brought suit against numerous defendants -- including the arresting officer, the state of Pennsylvania, and LYIC officials -- claiming civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for false arrest, unreasonable search and seizure, false imprisonment and due process violations. The district court, upon a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendants, dismissed all claims except for the illegal strip search claim. The court held there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether LYIC officials possessed a reasonable suspicion to strip search J.B. In particular, the district court was concerned with the three-week delay between J.B.'s offense and the time he was booked.

Defendants appealed, and the Third Circuit reversed as to the denial of summary judgment to Defendants on the strip search claim. The sole issue on appeal was whether the U.S. Supreme Court's holding in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholder's of County of Burlington, 132 S. Ct. 1510 (2012) -- which held that all arrestees may be subjected to strip searches regardless of their alleged crime -- applied to juveniles.

In answering that question in the affirmative, the Third Circuit said that juvenile facilities face the same challenges as adult jails, in that they know "little to nothing about new detainees," and that paucity of information makes it "unreasonable for an officer to assume the arrestees in front of them do not pose a risk of smuggling something into the facility."

The court rejected the Plaintiff's contention that an individualized inquiry into the dangerousness of the new detainee is constitutionally required prior to a strip search of a juvenile, calling it "impractical, if not dangerous, given the realities of jail administration."

Finding that no exception for juvenile detainees was contemplated in Florence, and that deference "must be given to the officials in charge of a jail," the appellate court reversed that denial of summary judgment and ordered judgment be entered in their favor. See J.B., a Minor, by Thomas Benjamin and Janet Benjamin, Parents and Natural Guardians, v. Fassnacht, et al., No. 14-3905 (3d Cir. 2015).

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Related legal case

J.B., a Minor, by Thomas Benjamin and Janet Benjamin, Parents and Natural Guardians, v. Fassnacht, et al