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Federal Appeals Court Rules Inmate Strip Searches Constitutional

By Kamika Dunlap on February 10, 2010 12:53 PM

A federal appeals court ruled that strip searches of newly arrested inmates are not only constitutional, but necessary.

The decision by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco replaces an older ruling that strip searches are so dehumanizing that they violate a person's constitutional rights.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the ruling justifies strip searches not only for inmates who are suspected of committing violent or drug-related crimes, or of concealing contraband, but all newly arrested inmates, regardless of why they were arrested.

The ruling by the federal appeals court applies to county jails in California and eight other Western states.

The ruling was in response to a class action lawsuit by antiwar protester Mary Bull and eight others against the city and county of San Francisco. They alleged that they were mistreated by authorities when they were arrested during a November 2002 demonstration.

In 2004, SF Sheriff Michael Hennessey suspended the policy in response to the suit and a series of rulings forbidding strip searches unless deputies have reason to suspect an inmate is hiding something dangerous.

A federal judge ruled the city's former practice unconstitutional in 2005, exposing the city to damage claims by as many as 28,000 former inmates. The city appealed, leading to the recent ruling.

In general, some of the contraband discovered from strip searches often includes drugs, money, shanks, shivs, knives and other items that can pose risk to jail personnel and other inmates.

Currently, the SF Sherriff's Department is reviewing the ruling before deciding whether to reinstate its former policy.

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