SAN FRANCISCO — A lawsuit seeking damages from San Diego County Sheriff John Duffy for his former policy of strip searching people jailed after arrests for minor crimes can go to trial, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
Without deciding whether the former policy was an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said an official who instituted a policy of illegal strip searches cannot claim immunity from damages on the grounds that the law on the subject was unclear.
Duffy was sued for $70,000 by Judith Ward, who was booked into the Las Colinas County Jail for women, in May, 1981, for investigation of failing to sign a statement on a traffic ticket promising to appear in court, a misdemeanor crime.
State Law Was Changed
Under jail policy, the court said, she was subjected to a strip search before it was decided whether she was eligible for release without bail. Ward claimed in her suit that the experience humiliated and embarrassed her. Since then, a state law has been passed to prohibit strip searches of people arrested for misdemeanors who are eligible for release without bail.
U.S. District Judge Gordon Thompson dismissed Ward's suit against Duffy for an illegal search, saying the sheriff was protected from damages because he acted in good faith and did not violate any "clearly established" rights of which a reasonable person would have known.
But the appeals court reversed the ruling, saying the right to be free of an illegal strip search was clearly established in 1981. The court did not rule on whether the search policy itself was an illegal invasion of privacy, leaving that determination to Thompson in further proceedings.
"The law was sufficiently clear in early 1981 so as to expose a public official who unreasonably authorized blanket strip searches of minor offense arrestees to civil liability," said Judge Thomas Tang, writing for a unanimous three-member panel.
He cited pre-1981 rulings allowing a strip search only when an officer is making a custodial arrest or has reason to think the arrested person has a weapon or contraband.
"It was unlikely that arresting officers reasonably suspected that Ward possessed a weapon or contraband," Tang said. "In most instances the unreasonableness of a strip search conducted prior to (a no-bail) release determination is plain."
Attorney Is Ready
Ward's attorney, George Weingarten, said he welcomed the opportunity to get on with the trial, which was interrupted when Thompson dismissed the case in July, 1984.
"Sheriff Duffy should not have had this blanket policy to strip search in the works and he is liable for his action," Weingarten said. "He was strip searching them first, for the security of the institution, the personnel and the other inmates. My position was that if they went in one door and out the other, there was no need to strip search them."
Weingarten said it was unlikely that the appeals court decision would open the door to any additional suits against Duffy. He said federal law allows for suits to be filed for one year after a violation of civil rights. The Sheriff's Department has not strip searched suspected misdemeanants since March, 1983.