A woman who was subjected to a body cavity search during a prison visit in 1993 has reached a tentative financial settlement with the state.
Attorneys for Stana Lyn Laughter and the state filed a joint motion Feb. 20 to dismiss an appeal of a federal court order that found the search violated her constitutional rights.Laughter filed suit in 1995 against corrections officers Preston Kay and Ryan Evans for their roles in the search of her and her 2 1/2-year-old son during their visit to the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison.
The motion to dismiss was filed with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals subject to final approval of a settlement agreement to be submitted to U.S. Magistrate Ronald Boyce. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but sources said the state has agreed to pay Laughter $50,000 without admitting any wrongdoing.
Boyce, who made the original finding of fault last year, said in his 35-page order that the prison had no right to conduct such an intrusive search of Laughter without a valid search warrant based upon probable cause.
According to court documents, Laughter was usually questioned and her vehicle was searched whenever she visited her inmate husband, Curtis Laughter, between September 1992 and October 1993. No illegal substances or contraband was ever found during those searches.
However, on Oct. 4, 1993, officers did find syringes in the trunk of the car she was driving. Her visiting privileges were then suspended, although an investigation later revealed that neither the car nor the needles were hers.
The prison restored her visiting rights on Oct. 9. The day before she returned, Kay, a prison investigator, obtained a warrant authorizing a search of Laughter and her child "including all body cavities."
The warrant was based on information and a cryptic note from a confidential informant and a monitored telephone call in which an inmate's wife was heard telling her husband about the syringes that were found in Laughter's car.
However, Boyce noted in his ruling that the informant's note did not mention drugs and "provides little to support a determination that probable cause existed to conduct a body cavity search of (Laughter) and her child."
Nevertheless, when Laughter arrived at the facility on Oct. 9, her car was searched by officers and a drug-sniffing dog. Officers also searched her child's diaper and clothing. No contraband was found.
Laughter was then taken to the Gunnison hospital and ordered to strip while a female officer searched each piece of her clothing. A doctor then checked her eyes, nose, ears and other external body areas and also performed a vaginal search using a speculum and a rectal search using his gloved hand, according to court documents.
Laughter, who was six months pregnant, said the examination was very painful and that she experienced vaginal bleeding for several days afterward.
Nothing was found in the search, but her visiting privileges were suspended again anyway. Laughter, who was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and attorney John Pace, alleged a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights because the warrant was not supported by probable cause.
Attorneys for the two officers insisted the search was legally justified because they had received information about inmate wives, including Laughter, bringing drugs into the facility.
Boyce disagreed, saying, "Under the facts of this case, no reasonable officer could have believed the searches at issue were lawful."
The $50,000 settlement in the Laughter case would be at the high end of what appears to be the "going rate" for illegal strip search settlements in Utah.