Rosemary Munyiri is not the sort of woman who has run-ins with the law. She's never even had a parking ticket.
But on a rainy April evening last year, the cardiac nurse was ordered from her car at gunpoint by a city police officer, handcuffed, arrested on traffic violations and taken to downtown Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center. There, she says, she was illegally strip-searched in front of other detainees without cause.
"It made me feel so violated, just knowing that I hadn't done anything wrong," the soft-spoken, 29-year-old Baltimore County woman said, her face scrolling through a catalog of emotions as she recounted the tale: outrage, fear, shock.
At her boss' urging, Munyiri has filed a federal lawsuit contending that the state-run Central Booking facility, which processes everyone arrested in the city, routinely strip-searches harmless detainees in violation of their constitutional rights.
It's one of a growing number of Maryland cases making similar claims in U.S. District Court. Last month, attorneys argued for class-action status in a separate strip-search case that originated with nine detainees at Central Booking. A Baltimore man recently filed a $210 million lawsuit alleging that a rogue city police officer strip-searched him on a city sidewalk in front of about 30 onlookers. Another case concerns teenagers who say they were arrested in Harford County and strip-searched after an anti-abortion protest.
It could take a year or more for the Maryland lawsuits to be resolved; none has reached the trial stage.
Similar suits are moving through the courts in other states as well. There have been recent filings in New York, Illinois and Georgia. In New Jersey, a judge ruled last month that thousands of jail searches were unconstitutional.
"Your rights are left outside the prison door," said Michael V. Calabro, a plaintiffs' attorney in the New Jersey case.
A spokesman for Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which oversees the state-run Central Booking facility, said he couldn't comment on current litigation or provide a copy of the agency's strip-search policy. A court document filed on the department's behalf says Munyiri was never strip-searched.
Courts have long held that strip searches have their place but should not be undertaken lightly. They can be "degrading and invasive," a 2004 opinion by Maryland's highest court said, and should occur only if there's a reasonable suspicion that the detainee is "carrying weapons or contraband." Outside of those circumstances, the searches violate basic civil rights.
Daryl A. Martin, who filed the $210 million suit, contends that a police officer stopped his car in 2006 and searched him in front of dozens of people in the 900 block of Patterson Park Ave. The officer frisked Martin through his pants, grabbing his genitals and running his hands along his buttocks, making lewd comments, Martin said in an interview.
He was then stripped below the waist and his rectum probed in front of a crowd of gawkers.
"It was horrifying," said Martin, who was never arrested or charged with a crime. "I felt like I was raped that day, like my manhood was gone."
Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said that he couldn't comment on the lawsuit or Martin's allegations. No one responded to a request for the department's strip-search policy.
Martin's experience changed him forever, longtime friend Ryan Byers said.
"He's not the same happy-go-lucky guy he always was," Byers said. "Now he's a little more defensive of everything. He questions how it happened. You ask questions about yourself, even though you've done nothing wrong. He'll never forget it."
Munyiri, too, says she has felt lasting effects. She gets panic attacks. She can't sleep. She can't drive the same route home from work. And she's afraid of the police, the people she once trusted to keep her safe.
She says it all started because of a misunderstanding. She was on her way home after a 12-hour nursing shift, still wearing her uniform of pink scrubs, and took her regular exit off Interstate 83.
According to the arresting officer, she drove past flares he had placed to block the exit. She says she didn't see them. When the officer pulled up behind her with his lights on, she thought it was for someone else and drove ahead to find a safe place to pull over, out of the way. But the lights were for her, and when she kept going, the officer believed she was fleeing.
He ordered her to throw her keys out the window and lie on the wet ground, where he handcuffed her, then put her in the back of his vehicle and searched hers. He found nothing but arrested her on three misdemeanor charges - negligent driving, failure to pull to the curb upon a signal from a police vehicle and attempt to elude uniformed police by failing to stop - and took her to Central Booking.
There, she says, she was told to remove her clothes, squat and cough (to dislodge anything she might be concealing in a body cavity), then spread her buttocks for visual inspection.
"The state of Maryland effectively raped this woman," said Munyiri's attorney, Robert Schulte. He and his partner, a former police officer, took the case for free after Munyiri's boss called them. "I'm simply astonished, because the federal courts have said over and over and over again, you can't do this."
In an answer to Munyiri's complaint, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services denies Munyiri's allegations. "The Defendants specifically deny that Plaintiff was strip searched and subject to a visual body cavity search," the document reads. It also denies that such searches are customary or completed without probable cause.
Schulte concedes that Central Booking has a document governing the proper way to handle strip searches, but he says the practice is very different from the policy. He points to a September deposition in the Maryland case that's seeking class-action status, which could ultimately encompass "a couple hundred thousand people," according to a transcript quoting the plaintiffs' attorney, William C. Claiborne III. The deposition is from a longtime Central Booking guard who said she performs strip searches "all the time for everybody."
That's what Munyiri believes happens.
"My intention going through all this is to get someone to say this is not OK," she said. "I mean, the United States of America. I don't know what to say. After he stopped me and established who I was, did all that really have to happen?"
Last month, Munyiri received a package from the intake center in the mail. Inside it was her bra.
Federal lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, alleging illegal strip searches by Maryland law enforcement: :
* February 2009 Daryl Martin says he was unconstitutionally cavity- searched in public by a Baltimore police officer.
* September 2008 Angela Swagler and two other young women arrested in Harford County after an anti-abortion protest claim "unlawful arrest [and] sexually invasive searches."
* July 2008 Rosemary Munyiri alleges that she was strip-searched without cause at Central Booking after being arrested for traffic violations.
* May 2005 Eric Jones and eight other plaintiffs claim inappropriate searches at Central Booking.