Jail inmates who are detained for misdemeanors or traffic offenses cannot be strip searched without reasonable suspicion, the Montana Supreme Court ruled this week.
Tuesday’s 5-0 ruling reversed a decision by Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Mike McMahon, who is presiding over a class-action lawsuit originally filed in November 2018 by 96 former inmates of the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center in Helena. The plaintiffs estimated that 50% to 75% of those arrested for misdemeanors or traffic offenses had been subjected to illegal strip searches at the county jail, likely resulting in about 4,500 victims.
"Some Class members have been subjected to a visual inspection of their totally nude bodies while they undressed from street clothes and changed into Detention Center clothes," the original complaint says. "Other Class members have been subjected to enhanced strip searches involving squatting, coughing and visual inspections of genitals."
The Supreme Court’s opinion notes that the detention center has a policy requiring a strip search of anyone placed into the general population to prevent them from bringing weapons or contraband into the secure housing area and to identify any wounds, tattoos or other marks that might make that placement unsafe. Any placement in which two or more inmates have the opportunity for direct physical contact without supervision is considered a general population placement.
Of the 96 plaintiffs who were strip searched at the county jail, 92 were placed in the general population and four were not. In December 2019, McMahon dismissed the claims of those 92 plaintiffs, ruling that the strip search policy did not violate the Montana Constitution or state law for those who were placed in the general population.
Authored by Justice Ingrid Gustafson, the opinion issued by the Supreme Court agreed that the detention center’s strip search policy does not violate the Montana Constitution but ruled that it does violate state law. According to Montana statutes, “A person arrested or detained for a traffic offense or an offense that is not a felony may not be subjected to a strip search or a body cavity search by a peace officer or law enforcement employee unless there is reasonable suspicion to believe the person is concealing a weapon, contraband or evidence of the commission of a crime.”
“The District Court determined the statute does not expressly apply to a detainee being placed in the general population of a detention facility. But the statute does not need to state such,” the Supreme Court's opinion says. “ … The plain language unequivocally prohibits suspicionless strip searches of those arrested for minor offenses in any situation. There is no provision that allows officers to strip search without suspicion the covered low-level offenders if they are placed in the general jail population.”
The case now goes back to the district court for further proceedings. The plaintiffs are seeking injunctive relief to prevent detention officers from conducting strip searches without reasonable suspicion in the future, as well as unspecified monetary damages.
“We’re very pleased with the ruling by the Supreme Court,” said Keif Storrar of Doubek, Pyfer & Storrar in Helena, who is representing the plaintiffs. “It was what we viewed as a clear and unambiguous statute to protect all Montanans’ rights, including those here in Lewis and Clark County.”
The county is being represented by Mitchell Young and Maureen Lennon of the Montana Association of Counties Defense Services in Helena. Noting the ongoing litigation, both Young and Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said they could not comment on whether the strip search policy remains in place at the county jail.