Court upholds Fulton jail strip searches

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Fulton County’s practice of strip-searching jail detainees — no matter how minor the offense — is constitutionally permissible, the federal appeals court in Atlanta ruled Thursday.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out claims raised by five inmates who were strip-searched solely because they were entering the general population of inmates at the jail. All were charged with non-violent offenses.

“The need for strip searches at all detention facilities, including county jails, is not exaggerated,” Judge Ed Carnes wrote for the court’s majority. “Employees, visitors and (not least of all) the detained inmates themselves face a real threat of violence, and administrators must be concerned on a daily basis with the smuggling of contraband by inmates accused of misdemeanors as well as those accused of felonies.”

Carnes was joined by nine other 11th Circuit judges, and Chief Judge J.L. Edmondson concurred with the decision. Only Judge Rosemary Barkett dissented.

In 2004, a number of detainees at the Fulton jail filed suit, contending the Sheriff’s Department’s blanket strip-search policy was unconstitutional. Before being put into the jail’s population, all inmates are told to strip naked en masse, take a group shower and then be inspected, front and back, by a jailer.

The five detainees, whose claims were addressed by the 11th Circuit Thursday, faced charges of disorderly conduct, a traffic ticket warrant, DUI, failure to pay child support and burglary.

Lawyers for these plaintiffs argued that jailers should have had a reasonable suspicion to conduct the strip searches. Other courts, Carnes noted in the majority opinion, have agreed with such an approach.

But the other courts got it wrong because they misread a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision that governs the constitutionality of strip searches in detention facilities, Carnes said.

In 1979, the high court upheld body-cavity searches of inmates re-entering the prison population at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York. In that decision, Carnes noted, the intrusive searches were conducted of all inmates and no reasonable suspicion was required.

So long as Fulton’s strip-search policy is no more intrusive the searches used in New York and so long as the county’s strip searches are not conducted in an abusive manner, they are permitted, the 11th Circuit decided.



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