Supreme Court ruling on strip-searches won't change protocol at county jail

Sheriff says officers will continue to follow state law

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

Published:

Updated: April 11, 2012, 3:33 PM

 

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that jail officers may conduct strip-searches any time they want — even for the most minor crimes and when there’s no evidence of contraband such as weapons or drugs.

But Sheriff Garry Lucas and his top officers say it’s not needed at the Clark County Jail, and his officers will continue to follow state law. In addition, some have said the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling goes too far in invading inmates’ privacy, according to a story by Adam Liptak published April 2 in the The New York Times.

“Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, joined by the court’s conservative wing, wrote that courts are in no position to second-guess the judgments of correctional officials who must consider not only the possibility of smuggled weapons and drugs, but also public health and information about gang affiliations ,” Liptak wrote.

On the other hand, the Times story says, “Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the four dissenters, said the strip searches the majority allowed were “a serious affront to human dignity and to individual privacy” and should be used only when there was good reason to do so. Breyer said the Fourth Amendment should be understood to bar strip searches of people arrested for minor offenses not involving drugs or violence, unless officials had a reasonable suspicion that they were carrying contraband, the story says. Asked about the ruling, Lucas said, “strip searching every individual for any arrest is not necessary in order to maintain security of our facility.”

As to whether the ruling will mean more strip searches here, Lucas said: “No. Clark County and all jails within the State of Washington must conduct strip searches consistent with State Law RCW 10.79.” Find it at Searches and Seizures.

Lucas said searches take about three minutes each and average about 12 per day.

“This does not include other strip searches that are done within the facility, such as the occasional search for suspected contraband or random searches of inmate workers returning from working outside their living units, etc.”

Many inmates who are searched feel humiliated, Lucas said.

“Of course! I would, wouldn’t you?” Lucas said. “Because of this, we make every effort to conduct those strip searches as privately and professionally as possible in order to minimize humiliation while maintaining staff and facility safety.”

Asked if contraband has been found inside the jail, Lucas responded:

“Due to safety and security reasons, I will not be providing details. But, yes, there have been other incidents of contraband coming into the jail. To the best of my recollection, I can not remember a specific event where a smuggled weapon was used to cause an injury. “

In the back-and-forth between Justices Kennedy and Breyer, Liptak said Breyer wrote that people have been strip-searched “for driving with a noisy muffler, failing to use a turn signal and riding a bicycle without an audible bell.”He added that Breyer reported that a nun was strip-searched after being arrested “for trespassing during an anti-war demonstration.”

Not to be outdone, Kennedy tossed in the spectre of Timothy McVeigh, put to death for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Liptak wrote.

The blast killed 168 people including many children.

McVeigh was first arrested for driving with no license plate.

Justice Kennedy wrote that “people detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals.”

Veteran hands at the sheriff’s departmet remember Shane Cole, who, on Nov. 26, 2004, fatally stabbed a neighbor, 59-year-old Hazel “Sis” Stephens at a Vancouver apartment house they lived in.

Cole was acquitted of murder on the basis of insanity and ordered to Western State Hospital indefinitely. He was diagnosed as a developmentally disabled paranoid schizophrenic.

In November 2004, police said Cole smuggled a knife into the jail by concealing it in his rectum. No one was reported injured, and the knife was removed at a hospital.

Officers said state law barred them from a body cavity search when Cole was booked.

At Larch Corrections Center in far-east Clark County, custody officers use search policies based on state law, said public information officer Gwen Sidlo.

Because Larch allows some inmates to work outside the minimum-security prison, including to fight wildfires, they should be strip-searched when they return, Sidlo said.

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.