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Woman Guards Strip Searching Male Inmates Unconstitutional

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By Minara El-Rahman on January 19, 2011 8:47 AM

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that cross-gender strip searches of inmates are unconstitutional in an en banc panel of 11 judges, the ABA Journal reports. Inmate Charles Byrd alleges that he was strip searched by a female cadet in 2004 in a Maricopa County jail in Arizona. He was only a pretrial detainee at the time of the search. Approximately 90 inmates were searched for possible weapons and contraband during the incident.

During the strip search, he was wearing only state issued pink boxer shorts. Charles Byrd claims that the female cadet squeezed and kneaded both his genitals and buttocks during the one minute search, according to CNN.

As a result, Charles Byrd filed a grievance and then a lawsuit where he claimed that the cross gender strip search violated his due process rights against unreasonable searches. A federal court in Arizona dismissed a majority of the claims and a jury sided with the female cadet on the remainder of the claims. The trial court's decision was affirmed by an appeals panel court in 2009.

Maricopa County allows male inmates to be frisked by both male and female officers but that female inmates must be frisked by female officers. The county claims that Charles Byrd was not subjected to a strip search because he was still wearing his boxer shorts. The county prohibits cross-gender strip searches.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals looked at the following factors in order to decide whether a search is reasonable under the 4th Amendment:

  • The scope of the particular intrusion.
  • The manner in which it is conducted.
  • The justification for initiating it.
  • The place in which it is conducted.

According to the facts of this case, the 9th Circuit ruled that the strip search was unreasonable: "The indignity of the nonemergency strip search conducted by an unidentified female cadet was compounded by the fact that there were onlookers, at least one of whom videotaped the humiliating event," stated the majority opinion.

Civil rights groups such as Just Detention International emphasized that this decision is an important one because cross gender searches are directly linked to sexual abuse: "This is an important decision, as cross-gender searches of male detainees rarely are recognized as a serious problem, even though they are directly linked to sexual abuse," said Just Detention International's senior program director Melissa Rothstein to CNN.

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