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Michigan Prisoner Obtains $2,000 Settlement in Group Strip Search Suit

by Scott Grammer

On February 10, 2017, Mario Cavin, incarcerated at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility, filed a handwritten civil rights complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan. He alleged that he had been strip searched in the prison’s chapel in front of “fifteen to twenty other prisoners, a camera, and [Sergeant Patricia] Belfry (a female employee)” at the Marquette Branch Prison (MBP). 

Cavin’s complaint also claimed that he asked an unnamed “John Doe” defendant if he “‘could be searched in another – more private – location’ because he felt humiliated, embarrassed, and violated at being forced to strip for an audience and a female,” but his request was denied. He further alleged that “MBP staff have a policy or custom of conducting mass strip searches of prisoners transferring out of the facility, and that these searches are conducted in front of, and in view of other individuals, prisoners, and staff alike,” in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. Such rights are attenuated, but not completely extinguished, within prisons and jails.

On July 5, 2018, U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy P. Greeley filed a Report and Recommendation to deny both Belfry’s motion for summary judgment and her motion for dismissal based on the defense of qualified immunity. Magistrate Greeley explained that Belfry “argues in her brief that there was a penological need for the search. Defendant has failed to support her argument with any evidence.... Defendant Belfry provides a conclusory argument for the reason for the strip search.... Defendant has made no effort to explain the need for the group strip search.” He also made clear that Belfry had “failed to properly support her motion for summary judgment with relevant evidence showing the existence of a legitimate penological need for the group strip search and why her presence inside the Chapel was necessary at the time of the search.” Magistrate Greeley’s Report and Recommendation was subsequently adopted by the district court.

The case settled on March 11, 2019 with the Michigan Department of Corrections agreeing to pay $2,000 to Cavin, of which $950 was “subject to an offset ... toward Plaintiff’s victim restitution.” In a March 18, 2019 letter sent to Prison Legal News, Cavin explained that he believed he “would have received a larger amount in damages had [he] gone to trial, however, the court refused to appoint me a lawyer and refused to aid in identifying a John Doe defendant.” See: Cavin v. Belfry, U.S.D.C. (W.D. MI), Case No. 2:17-cv-00031-JFF-TPG. 

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Related legal case

Cavin v. Belfry