A recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion upholding jailhouse strip searches could derail the civil claims of thousands of detainees who say they were illegally examined by Baltimore law enforcement officials, including a nurse who was arrested at gunpoint for alleged traffic violations.
The sharply split 5-4 ruling, issued this month, found that bare-body inspections are appropriate to ensure safety within the general population of a jail, even for those arrested on minor offenses. It does not address whether defendants placed in small holding cells, who haven't seen a bail commissioner, may also be subject to searches.
Judges overseeing pending cases around the country are likely to refer to the high court's ruling for guidance. Two lawsuits in Maryland's U.S. District Court, one of them a class action case open to thousands, were put on hold while the justices considered the issue.
The decision appears to go against a recent ruling in Massachusetts that deemed routine searches unconstitutional. And it could threaten future settlements in similar cases.
Law enforcement agencies have paid out millions of dollars in settlements and judgments for lawsuits in Pennsylvania and New York, as well as in Maryland, where anti-abortion activists were strip-searched after their arrests at a Bel Air protest. The activists, who claimed violations of free speech, and some of whom were strip-searched, recently won a $385,000 settlement.
The federal judge hearing Maryland's two current cases has asked attorneys to confer with opposing counsel and provide a status report by Friday outlining how the Supreme Court decision "may affect the pending issues" and schedules in the cases. Both lawsuits allege that illegal strip searches are the norm for those arrested in the city and processed through the Central Booking and Intake Center in downtown Baltimore.
Lawyers for plaintiffs in both of those cases contend that the Supreme Court decision leaves room for the lawsuits to go forward, though they expect the state attorney general's office, which represents the Central Booking wardens and correctional officers, to disagree.
A lawyer for the attorney general's office declined to outline the state's position but said the potential impact of the Supreme Court ruling will likely be determined through the next round of legal filings.
The first case, filed in 2005, claims that strip searches for minor, nonviolent, non-drug offenses violated arrestees' constitutional rights because they were not supported by a reasonable suspicion that the detainees were concealing contraband.
That case was granted class action status three years ago, allowing tens of thousands of people arrested in Baltimore between 2002 and 2008, when Central Booking maintained a policy of searching only when reasonable, to join the suit.
Sean R. Day, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers in the case, said the Supreme Court opinion doesn't affect the pending case because it involves arrestees who haven't gone before a commissioner, who can determine whether they pose a danger, and people who aren't likely to be placed among the general population, where security concerns are higher.
"You're dealing here with people who are going to be out the door shortly," for the most part, Day said.
The Supreme Court justices explicitly declined to issue an opinion on strip searches under those circumstances.
The second Maryland case makes similar claims, though it involves a single plaintiff: Rosemary Munyiri, a nurse who says she's never even had a parking ticket. Munyiri says she mistakenly ignored flares blocking an exit ramp on her way home from work in 2008, then didn't pull over quickly enough when an officer pursued her.
She was ordered from her vehicle at gunpoint, handcuffed and taken to Central Booking, where she said she was strip-searched in front of other prisoners and correctional staff. The traffic charges against her were later dropped after the arresting officer failed to appear for trial.
Robert D. Schulte, one of Munyiri's Baltimore attorneys, also said he thinks the Supreme Court decision will not affect his case for the same reasons it won't affect Day's. Munyiri says her strip search occurred before she was allowed to see a commissioner.
"I know it's a very difficult job to run a facility like that, it can be dangerous, I get all that," he said. "But I'm not sure that's sufficient to strip somebody buck-naked for a nothing offense.
"The Constitution was supposed to recognize limitations on government power, and every time I turn around, it seems they're just slowly chipping away at it," he added. "It's frustrating."
The Supreme Court opinion concerns the arrest of a New Jersey man who was strip-searched twice at two separate jails after being arrested for a warrant that should no longer have been in effect. He filed a lawsuit contending that those arrested for minor offenses shouldn't be subject to such invasive searches absent a suspicion that they might be concealing weapons, drugs or other contraband.
But the majority of the justices found that the searches struck a "reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the needs of the institutions" to maintain safety. In a dissenting opinion, four justices found that the "serious invasion" of personal privacy is not justified by strip-searching those accused of minor offenses.