(Reuters) - The Wayne County jail in downtown Detroit is not liable to inmates who were subjected to group strip searches when the number of inmates awaiting processing made individual searches impractical, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday.
By a 2-1 vote, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati rejected claims that the county and a jail deputy should have known the searches were unreasonable, and violated inmates’ constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment.
Amanda Sumpter sued over three searches conducted by the female deputy that she found invasive and humiliating, including when she was allegedly told she smelled like a “funky monkey,” and a fourth in a cellblock allegedly visible to male guards.
The searches were conducted during Sumpter’s 34-day stay at the jail in the fall of 2012.
“We do not underestimate the severity of the intrusions plaintiff endured during her incarceration,” Circuit Judge Richard Griffin wrote for the appeals court majority.
“However, our task is to determine whether the particularized right implicated by defendant’s actions was clearly established at the time plaintiff was searched,” he added. “We hold that it was not.”
Circuit Judge Eric Clay dissented, finding no special justifications for the group searches, which violated Sumpter’s “clearly established” Fourth Amendment rights. He would have reversed a lower court judgment favouring the defendants.
Wayne County banned group strip searches in December 2013, court records show.
Sumpter’s lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Daniel Pfannes, undersheriff of the Wayne County Sheriff’s office, said in an interview: “We are vindicated by the decision and very pleased by the legal logic the court employed to reach it.”
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by David Gregorio