Davis County should have known its jail strip-search policy was flawed even before it was hit with the first of seven civil rights lawsuits, a federal judge said Monday.
With that finding, U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell has held the county and one of its deputies liable for the 1994 strip search of Kristin Foote.Foote was traveling along U.S. 89 with her 4-year-old daughter and a friend the afternoon of May 8, 1994, when she was stopped for a traffic violation and then arrested by Utah Highway Patrol troopers on suspicion of driving under the influence of marijuana.
At the Davis County Jail, Foote was ordered to strip and was searched for contraband drugs. Nothing was found, and a urine test also revealed no drugs. Although she was booked, she was never placed inside with the general jail population.
ACLU attorneys filed suit on Foote's behalf alleging a violation of her constitutional protection against unreasonable searches. Last year, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver said the county could not assert immunity from the suit and sent the case back to U.S. District Court.
Campbell held a hearing in December, and Monday morning issued an order granting the ACLU's motion for summary judgment against the county and Catherine Williams, the corrections deputy who conducted the search.
ACLU staff attorney Pamela Martinson said although additional claims against the state and its troopers remain unresolved, Campbell's ruling addresses the critical question of liability for the search itself.
The ruling also strengthens Foote's position in behind-the-scenes settlement negotiations. So far, three of the seven strip-search suits against the county have been settled out of court for amounts ranging between $30,000 and $50,000 each.
Campbell's 21-page ruling says the county's legal problems can be traced back to a policy that doesn't require "reasonable suspicion" before conducting jailhouse strip searches.
"This glaring omission is, in itself, a policy decision made by the county which is sufficient to subject it to liability in this case," Campbell wrote.
The judge said the constitutional flaws in the policy were known as early as 1993, when a federal appeals court reinstated a lawsuit filed by the first of the strip-search plaintiffs, Lisa Cottrell. That case was later settled out of court.
"In truth, however, the court believes that the county should have been aware of potential problems with its strip-search policy even prior to the Cottrell case," Campbell said.
Jail officials are tempted to strip-search each and every detainee because it may provide marginal increases in security, she said. And with blanket search policies, jail administrators aren't required to determine whether reasonable suspicion exists on a case-by-case basis.
"Davis County should have realized that, if it did not explicitly forbid strip searches of detainees absent reasonable suspicion of drugs or other contraband, that sooner or later the constitutional rights of detainees would be violated," the judges said.