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Strip-Search Policy of Pomona Police Ruled Unconstitutional

Courts: Woman suspected of having a fake $20 bill brought suit after money was determined to be legitimate.

October 17, 2000|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Pomona Police Department policy mandating strip-searches of all felony suspects is unconstitutional, a federal judge declared in a tentative ruling Monday.

U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson made his remarks in connection with a lawsuit by a 48-year-old woman who was strip-searched after being arrested on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill.

The $20 bill was later found to be legitimate, but in the meantime, Eugenia Cazares was taken to the Pomona police jail, where she was forced to remove all of her clothing and submit to a strip-search by a female guard.

The search included a visual examination of her buttocks, breasts and genital area.

Cazares' lawyer, Stephen Yagman, said his client was humiliated and traumatized by the experience. He sued, charging that the police violated her constitutional right to be free from unreasonable search.

Pregerson indicated that he would render his final ruling in a written opinion, but left little doubt how he would decide the issue.

Stephen J. Rothans, who represents Police Chief Fred Sanchez in the lawsuit, said Pomona is one of many police agencies in Southern California that have such a policy.

"This is a case of first impression," Rothans said. "No other court has ever ruled specifically on the issue."

There have been any number of related rulings on body searches, and Pregerson cited them in concluding that Pomona's policy violated the Constitution.

In 1984, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a person arrested for a misdemeanor or other minor infraction could be strip-searched only if jail officials had reason to believe the suspect was hiding contraband. That ruling has since been incorporated into the California penal code.

In 1990, the same federal appeals court declared unconstitutional a Los Angeles Police Department policy of conducting intrusive body cavity searches on all felony suspects. The court did not bar strip-searches in its ruling.

The Pomona Police Department policy challenged by Cazares says that "strip-searches shall be conducted on all felony suspects." It provides for no exceptions.

In court Monday, Pregerson questioned the propriety of strip-searching someone arrested for nonviolent felonies, such as income tax evasion or a fish and game code violation.

"It's not unreasonable that someone passing counterfeit money may also be trafficking in drugs," Rothans responded in an attempt to justify the policy. Pregerson said he was not persuaded by that line of reasoning.

Roger A. Colvin, who represents the city in the suit, argued that the blanket strip-search policy is needed to protect jailers and prisoners. He said the city risked being hauled into court for violating the rights of a prisoner attacked with a weapon smuggled into the jail.

However, Pregerson suggested there are effective search techniques that are more reasonable than forcing all prisoners to "completely disrobe, take off their underclothing and spread their buttocks."

The judge gave no indication when he would issue his final ruling.

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