Police officers cannot be strip-searched by their superiors unless there is "reasonable suspicion" that evidence of a crime will be found, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling and reinstated a civil rights suit brought by two Los Angeles Police Department officers after they were strip-searched after a complaint by an intoxicated man.
After being accused of stealing $600, Officers Gary Kirkpatrick and Eric Hermann were searched by a sergeant, acting on the orders of a lieutenant, in the locker room of the Devonshire Division station on March 13, 1981. The allegedly missing money was not found.
The officers filed suit, claiming that their constitutional protection against unreasonable search had been violated, and naming as defendants Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, Lt. John Aggas and the City of Los Angeles.
Suit Was Dismissed
U.S. District Judge Richard Gadbois, concluding that the searches were reasonable, dismissed the suit last year before it came to trial.
However, the three-judge appeals court panel ruled that "in spite of the government's interest in police integrity, strip-searches of police officers for investigative purposes must be supported by a reasonable suspicion that evidence will be uncovered."
The court ruled that there was no such reasonable suspicion, adding that there were "no facts indicating that the money would be found on the officers."
The arrested man originally claimed that $600 had been stolen, later he said $60, and, finally, he refused to specify an amount, the judges said.
Also, the panel pointed out that a search of the officers' pockets and gun belts by the sergeant revealed nothing, and the sergeant told Aggas that there was no reason to believe the man's accusation.
The appeals court, in returning the suit to District Court, ordered Gates and Aggas removed from any potential liability, but left the city at risk should the lower court find for the defendants.
The Police Department had no written policy on the subject of strip-searches of officers in 1981.
Department policy now is that "you have to have a search warrant or get approval of the bureau commanding officer," said LAPD spokesman Lt. Dan Cooke. He declined further comment pending the final outcome of the case.
The president of the Police Protective League, George Aliano, said representatives of the league had negotiated "new guidelines restricting searches of department personnel" that went into effect earlier this year.
Now, he said, a strip-search requires reasonable cause to believe that a crime has been committed by an officer and the approval of an officer of the rank of commander or above.
Peter J. Ferguson, attorney for the two officers, said he will press his case in District Court in an attempt to obtain unspecified damages from the city.