Federal judge tosses former state prison corrections officer’s harassment suit

A federal magistrate on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit by a former Fayette County state prison corrections officer who claims he and other black guards were singled out for pat-downs and searches of their vehicles for drugs.

In a 27-page opinion, U.S Magistrate Judge Robert C. Mitchell ruled that efforts by the state Department of Corrections and a lieutenant in 2005 to investigate the possible smuggling of contraband into the State Correctional Institution in Luzerne did not violate Joseph E. Wheeler’s rights.

Wheeler, a state guard since 1994, claimed three searches amounted to harassment and racial discrimination. He has since been transferred to SCI-Pittsburgh, where he’s a prison counselor.

The corrections department was immune to Wheeler’s claims, and searches of his vehicle were “reasonable,” Mitchell said.

The first search, on April 17, 2005, was part of a random staff search prompted by a confidential tip to a K-9 sergeant that there would be an attempt to smuggle drugs or weapons into the prison that day, Mitchell said. When the target of the tip called off work that day, administrators decided to continue with the search headed by prison officials from the state Department of Corrections headquarters in Harrisburg.

After Wheeler filed a grievance, he claimed he was searched twice more that year.

“In contrast to the ‘relatively minor inconvenience’ of a vehicle search as occurred here, DOC prison officials have a legitimate governmental interest in safeguarding the security of a prison from an influx of contraband and weapons,” Mitchell said in the opinion.

source: http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/regional/fayette/s_629264.html?source=rss&feed=7

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