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November 16, 2005 - Eureka Reporter (CA)

Woman Claiming Illegal Strip Search Sues Sheriff's Office

By Christine Bensen-Messinger

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Attorney Mark Merin has filed a class-action lawsuit against the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office for what he alleged is the practice of "illegal strip searches."

Humboldt County Sheriff Gary Philp said his office follows the law pertaining to strip searches and pat-downs.

"Ms. (Ellin) Spellman, who is the plaintiff in this case, was up vacationing with a girlfriend (on the North Coast)," Merin said. "She was pulled over for driving (with a blood alcohol level) over the legal limit ... and she was over the legal limit."

On Sept. 23, 2004, Spellman, 23, and her friend were stopped on their way back to the campsite where they were staying in Garberville, said Merin, a Sacramento-based attorney.

Her friend, whom Merin alleged was much more inebriated than Spellman, was driven back to the campsite by deputies. Merin said Spellman was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol and driven by sheriff's deputies to the Humboldt County jail in Eureka.

"All they were going to do was hold her for four hours or so until she sobered up," Merin said. "While she was in the jail she was subjected to a strip search ... so her body could be examined. The way it was done was a little unusual. They had her strip down several items in the presence of men."

Merin said Spellman was told she could keep one item of clothing, not including a bra, on the top half of her body while she was being held.

"They claim ... that security concerns require that they have people in their custody strip down to only one item of clothing on their top," Merin said.

Philp said that is true.

"We would give them the option to choose (the item) out of convenience for them," Philp said.

Merin said Spellman wasn't wearing a bra, but she had a tank top underneath her outer layers of clothing and did not want to sit in the area in a tank top, thus, she had to take off her tank top and put on another shirt while a female deputy stood with her and two male deputies stood elsewhere in the room.

He said her back was to the male deputies.

"She felt extremely uncomfortable," Merin said. "She's a young woman and she is not in the habit of stripping in mixed company."

Typically, Merin said, strip searches are not done on individuals who are arrested for minor, nonviolent crimes if there is not reasonable cause to believe that they may have weapons or contraband.

Philp said he agrees and said a strip search is not the same as the standard pat-down and removal of extra layers of clothing.

In a situation such as the one Spellman was in, Philp said a person is given a private area to change in or typically a deputy of the same gender will hold up a blanket or stand in front of the person while he or she changes.

"We would not expose a person to the general ogling of officers or other persons in the area," he said, noting that he cannot comment on Spellman's allegations because they are the subject of a lawsuit.

As defined in the jail's policies and procedures, a strip search "requires a person to remove or arrange his or her clothing to permit a visual inspection of the underclothing, breast, buttocks or genitalia of such person."

"If there are certain allegations of violence or narcotics, (a person) may be strip searched," Philp said.

If an officer thinks a strip search is necessary, the officer must fill out an affidavit that needs to be reviewed and approved by a shift manager, Philp said.

"They're fairly rare, I'd have to say," he said. "There have to be extenuating circumstances. We do pat-down searches and if someone has layers of clothing, they will have to remove some layers."

If a strip search is conducted, it is done with two officers of the same gender as the person being patted down present and it is a visual search, Philp said.

Cavity searches are done by medical personnel, he added.

Merin said he is also concerned about the loss of a videotape that was made of the incident.

"They said it was all videotaped. ... Well, the videotape ended up disappearing and we never got to see it," he said.

Philp said there are cameras in the area that would have caught the incident on tape, but that the footage had been taped over as was standard procedure.

"Certainly, if we thought there was (an issue) and someone made a complaint at the time, we would save (the tape) and look it over," he said. "In this instance the system wrote it over."

The system has since been upgraded, Philp said.

"We've added some cameras and we're extending the time period before the tapes are (written) over," he said.

The case is expected to go to trial within the next year and others have joined the suit, although only Spellman is named in it, Merin said.

"We are seeking an injunction against the continuation of the illegal practices a¤" that is, they will have to stop strip searching people without reasonable suspicion (that those subjected) are carrying contraband or weapons," Merin said. "We are seeking compensatory damages for all people strip searched illegally at the Humboldt County jail in the last three years a¤" two years before the filing of the complaint, Feb. 8. It's the public's job to demand that the facilities be run in a constitutional way and hopefully in Humboldt County it will be."

"We're well aware of what the requirements are," Philp said, adding that they are followed. "It should be pretty standard in other agencies, too."

An attorney from Mitchell, Brisso, Delaney and Vrieze, the law firm which is representing the Sheriff's Office in this matter, was not available by deadline.

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