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Fifth Circuit Okays Mississippi County’s Strip Search of 12-Year-Old Girl

On February 21, 2017, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment to Lee County, Mississippi in a lawsuit over a pre-teen girl who was strip searched after being brought to a county detention facility.

Twelve-year-old T.M. was in a physical altercation with another student at Tupelo Middle School. A police officer arrested her for assault, disorderly conduct and disruption of a school session after a Youth Court designee, who spoke with him on the phone, determined there was probable cause for the arrest. T.M. was handcuffed, pat searched and taken to the Lee County Juvenile Detention Center.

The detention center had a policy of strip searching incoming juveniles who were charged with violent offenses prior to placing them in general population. In a private setting, a female guard made T.M. “strip naked, bend over, spread her buttocks, display the anal cavity, and cough.” No contraband was found. Later that evening, T.M. was released. No charges were filed against her.

T.M.’s mother, Nichole Mabry, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the county and others involved in her daughter’s strip search. The district court granted the county’s summary judgment motion and Mabry appealed.

The Fifth Circuit noted that Florence v. Bd. of Chosen Freeholders of Cty. of Burlington, 132 S.Ct. 1510 (2012) [PLN, July 2011, p.32] was controlling authority in the case. In Florence, an adult pretrial detainee challenged strip and cavity searches conducted during routine jail intake procedures. The Supreme Court held the prisoner had to prove by substantial evidence that the search did not advance a legitimate penological interest in order to prevail.

The Fifth Circuit saw no logical reason to treat juvenile offenders differently from adult prisoners in these circumstances. However, Mabry had failed to show the strip search was not reasonably related to legitimate penological interests, or was “exaggerated, unnecessary, or irrational in any way.” Therefore, despite the county’s poor defense of its search policy for juveniles during the intake process, the appellate court affirmed the judgment of the district court. See: Mabry v. Lee County, 849 F.3d 232 (5th Cir. 2017).

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals cited a similar Third Circuit decision that involved a strip and cavity search of a 12-year-old boy pursuant to routine intake procedures at a juvenile detention center in Pennsylvania. In that case the appellate court also found that Florence controlled; it then held deference “must be given to the officials in charge of a jail,” and granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. See: J.B. ex rel. Benjamin v. Fassnacht, 801 F.3d 336 (3d Cir. 2015), cert. denied. 

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Related legal cases

Mabry v. Lee County

J.B. ex rel. Benjamin v. Fassnacht