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Alexander v. Watson

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

May 14, 2014

CHRISTOPHER ALEXANDER, Plaintiff,
v.
RICHARD WATSON, and ST. CLAIR COUNTY JAIL (Specific Guards), Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

MICHAEL J. REAGAN, District Judge.

This action was severed on May 2, 2014, from Williams, et al., v. Watson, et al., Case No. 13-cv-1340-MJR, at Plaintiff's request (Doc. 1). Plaintiff, a detainee at the St. Clair County Jail ("the Jail"), joined with 28 other detainees to bring a pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that group strip searches at the Jail violated their constitutional rights as well as an Illinois statute. After receiving the case management order at Doc. 3, Plaintiff chose to pursue his claims in a separate action.

The complaint (Doc. 2) was signed by Plaintiff and most of the other original co-Plaintiffs. In it, he alleges that on multiple occasions, he and other fellow detainees were made to line up together in view of each other, remove their clothing, spread their buttocks, lift their genitals, and open their mouths for visual inspection (Doc. 2, p. 3). The strip searches were conducted in the view of "multiple officers" walking past the group of detainees. Plaintiff alleges there was no reasonable suspicion that any detainee possessed contraband, and none was found as a result of the searches.

Although the complaint claims that a number of specific correctional officers conducted these strip searches, these individuals are not identified. Plaintiff states that he is "moving to name all" officers who took part in the allegedly unconstitutional searches. Defendant Richard Watson (the St. Clair County Sheriff) is not said to have personally participated in the searches, but is named in his supervisory capacity (Doc. 2, p. 2).

Plaintiff argues that the searches were unconstitutional because the officers lacked reasonable suspicion that the detainees were hiding contraband. Further, the Jail's practices violated 725 Illinois Compiled Statutes 5/103-1(d), (e), and (h).

The complaint seeks preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to stop the illegal searches, and compensatory and punitive damages (Doc. 2, p. 4).

Merits Review Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A

Under § 1915A, the Court is required to conduct a prompt threshold review of the complaint, and to dismiss any claims that are frivolous, malicious, fail to state a claim on which relief may be granted, or seek monetary relief from an immune defendant.

Accepting Plaintiff's allegations as true, the Court finds that Plaintiff has articulated a colorable federal cause of action against the unnamed (John Doe) Defendant Guards for subjecting him to unconstitutional strip searches in violation of his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments (Count 1). Further, at this stage Plaintiff may proceed with a claim against Defendant Watson in his official capacity, for promulgating the official strip-search policy and practice at the Jail which led to the alleged constitutional violations (Count 2).

Courts have recognized that arbitrary or blanket strip searches of pretrial detainees may violate the Constitution. See Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 558-60 (1979) (search of pretrial detainees after contact visits with outsiders was reasonable); Calvin v. Sheriff of Will Cnty., 405 F.Supp.2d 933, 938-940 (N.D. Ill. 2005) (noting that " Bell did not validate a blanket policy of strip searching pretrial detainees"). Bell instructs that in balancing the detainee's constitutional rights with the security concerns of the institution, courts must consider the scope of the intrusion, the manner in which it is conducted, the justification for initiating it, and the place in which it is conducted. Bell, 441 U.S. at 559.

Although civil rights claims brought by detainees arise under the Fourteenth Amendment and not the Eighth Amendment, see Weiss v. Cooley, 230 F.3d 1027, 1032 (7th Cir. 2000), the Seventh Circuit has "found it convenient and entirely appropriate to apply the same standard to claims arising under the Fourteenth Amendment (detainees) and Eighth Amendment (convicted prisoners) without differentiation.'" Board v. Farnham, 394 F.3d 469, 478 (7th Cir. 2005) (quoting Henderson v. Sheahan, 196 F.3d 839, 845 n. 2 (7th Cir. 1999)).

Strip searches of prisoners that are not related to legitimate security needs, or are conducted in a harassing manner in order to humiliate and inflict psychological pain, may be found unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. Mays v. Springborn, 719 F.3d 631, 634, (7th Cir. 2013) (group of inmates were strip searched together, gratuitously exposing prisoners' nude bodies to each other, while guards uttered demeaning comments); Calhoun v. DeTella, 319 F.3d 936, 939 (7th Cir. 2003) (a strip search conducted in a harassing manner intended to humiliate and inflict psychological pain could violate the Eighth Amendment); see also Meriwether v. Faulkner, 821 F.2d 408 (7th Cir. 1987) (allegation of calculated harassment by strip searches stated Eighth Amendment claim), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 935 (1987).

Plaintiff alleges that there was no legitimate security reason for the strip searches. Further, the public manner in which the group searches were conducted, as well as the repeated searches, may have been intended to humiliate him. At this stage, Plaintiff has stated constitutional ...


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