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Montana Supreme Court: Jail’s Blanket Strip Search Policy Violates Law

William Scott Rogers and 94 other plaintiffs who had been arrested for non-felony charges filed a state civil action against Lewis and Clark County and others challenging the policy of the county’s jail to conduct an unclothed visual body cavity search of every detainee prior to placement in the jail’s general population regardless of whether there was reasonable suspicion that the detainee was concealing a weapon or contraband.

They alleged this violated and U.S. and Montana Constitutions as well as § 46-5-105, MCA. The district court granted summary judgment to defendants for all of the plaintiffs except four who were strip searched but never placed in general population. Helena attorneys John Doubek, Jonathan King, and Keif Storrar of Doubek, Pyfer & Storrar represented the plaintiffs on appeal.

The Montana Supreme Court disagreed with the lower court’s determination that detainees had no expectation of privacy, holding that Montanans have a heightened right to privacy because that right was expressly set out at Article II, § 10 of the Montana Constitution.

However, it held that this right protects Montanans only against unreasonable searches and strip searching a detainee about to be placed in a jail’s general population was not unreasonable. The policy serves a legitimate penological interest, preventing the introduction of contraband into the jail’s general population. Thus, the policy was not unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court noted that § 46-5-105, MCA, was a spurred by the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Florence v. Bd. Of Chosen Freeholders of Cty. of Burlington, 566 U.S. 318 (2012), that misdemeanor arrestees could not be strip searched without reasonable suspicion if they are not placed in the jail’s general population.

The statute specifically states that a person “arrested or detained for a traffic offense or misdemeanor offense may not be subjected to a strip search or body cavity search … unless there is reasonable suspicion.” The court held that the plain language of the statute unequivocally prohibits suspicion-less strip searches of persons arrested for minor offenses in any situation.

Therefore, the policy violates the statute. The summary judgment was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Rogers v. Lewis and Clark County, 401 Mont. 228 (2020) 

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Related legal case

Rogers v. Lewis and Clark County