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Sixth Circuit Reverses Injunction Against Delousing and Group Strip Searches at Ohio Jail

by Derek Gilna

On November 2, 2018, the Sixth Circuit reversed a permanent injunction and summary judgment order entered by a federal district court in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action filed by former prisoner Tynisa Williams against the City of Cleveland, challenging group strip searches and mandatory delousing at the city’s House of Correction (HOC). 

The appellate court found that Williams lacked standing to proceed, and that the city’s policies did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

The case was initially heard by the Sixth Circuit in 2014, when it overturned the dismissal of Williams’ original lawsuit against the city, and on remand the district court issued a permanent injunction. That injunction, in the words of the Court of Appeals, “enjoined the City from reinstituting its previous delousing method and from conducting group strip searches without installation of privacy partitions to obstruct the view of other inmates.”

However, the Sixth Circuit took issue with the breadth of the injunction, stating, “The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit all invasive searches and seizures – only those that are ‘unreasonable,’” citing Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979). “Whether a prison search is constitutionally reasonable depends on ‘whether the jail’s need for the particular search’ outweighs ‘the invasion of personal rights that the search entails.’”

The Court of Appeals noted the HOC was an often crowded facility, with large numbers of prisoners cycling in and out on a daily basis, and that the jail had a need to both process numerous prisoners and prevent the spread of disease. As a result, the Court said, “the City’s delousing policy did not violate Williams’s Fourth Amendment rights. The City’s decision to delouse detainees with a fine mist was reasonably related to its interest in maintaining the cleanliness and habitability of the HOC.... The need for delousing outweighed the admittedly substantial invasion of personal rights that resulted from the policy.”

With respect to group strip searches, the Sixth Circuit first said “We afford significant deference to correction facilities’ decisions in implementing security measures.” It then held that “processing detainees in groups of two or three during high-volume hours would presumptively speed up the intake process. We find that the City’s policy of allowing strip searches to be conducted in groups of two or three during busy periods, such as Williams’s time of intake, was reasonably related to the City’s legitimate penological interest of expediting the intake procedure.”

The Court of Appeals was also troubled by the fact that Williams “was not in the custody of the City at the time she filed the instant action, and we must assume that she will not return to the HOC in the future. The fact that Williams returned to the HOC three times after filing the instant complaint – the most recent example being approximately four years ago – does not confer standing because the relevant inquiry is whether she had a live, actionable claim for relief at the time she filed suit.”

Thus, the Sixth Circuit concluded, “we reverse the district court’s orders and remand with instructions to grant summary judgment in favor of the City on all counts and to vacate the permanent injunction.” One appellate judge entered an opinion that concurred in part and dissented in part.

Following remand, the defendants moved for payment of costs in the case. See: Williams v. City of Cleveland, 907 F.3d 924 (6th Cir. 2018), rehearing en banc denied. Cleveland began moving prisoners out of the HOC in March 2018. 


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