Strip Searches at Maricopa County Jails Are Under Fire, As Is PMT Ambulance; But Phil Gordon's Romance Is in the Clear

Michelle Miguel was far from a dangerous criminal. When the 34-year-old East Valley resident was arrested by the Chandler Police Department in June 2008, it was for driving on a suspended license and failing to show up at a hearing for a previous DUI charge. Bad judgment, certainly, but nothing to suggest she was a threat to public safety.

Yet when Miguel failed to make bond and got booked into the Maricopa County jail system, she was strip-searched — twice. She was lined up with other female detainees, forced to stand naked for minutes on end, and (in the second instance) even required to lift her breasts and butt, squat, and cough.

That treatment could cause big legal problems, and potentially major expense, for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

The United States Supreme Court has never officially weighed in on whether it's permissible to strip-search arrestees charged with minor crimes, like Miguel. But plenty of lower courts have — and they agree that the practice is unconstitutional. Absent suspicious behavior, jails are supposed to search only those detainees who might be a threat to safety. Someone charged with murder, say, or suspected of smuggling in drugs.

The Fourth Amendment, after all, gives us the right to be free of "unreasonable search and seizure." Plenty of judges, and appellate court decisions, have ruled that searching detainees like Michelle Miguel violates that right.

And it's not just Michelle Miguel.

Miguel and a male detainee, Calvin Land, sued last year in federal court. On December 22, U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver certified Miguel and Land as a class. That will allow the attorneys hired by Land and Miguel to fight the suit not just on their behalf, but as a class action, with Land and Miguel standing in for the thousands of pretrial detainees strip-searched in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jails before being found guilty of any crime.

It's important to note that Judge Silver has yet to rule on the merits of the claim. But it's also important, I think, that the allegations in the suit aren't just based on hearsay, or testimony from disgruntled former inmates.

No, the attorneys on the case, led by Danny Ortega at Roush, McCracken, Guerrero, Miller & Ortega, have discovered documents showing that the Sheriff's Office has had a written policy requiring these invasive searches for all new detainees. The policy has been in place for at least three years, they say.

"The record is undisputed," Ortega wrote in one court filing, "that Maricopa has a policy and practice, since at least August 26, 2006, and continuing today, of having its Detention Officers search all detainees . . . without regard to individualized reasonable suspicion. These searches take place in group settings with other detainees, who are also naked."

Of course we've all grown so accustomed to the sheriff ignoring the law that I suppose none of this is very shocking. Of course Arpaio's jails are out of control. Of course the Constitution gets chucked out the window.

Why follow the jail industry's best practices when instead you can pretend you're a tough guy?

But after doing a little homework, I can't believe even Arpaio would be so stupid as to put the jail's search policies in writing. Across the country, county after county has been slapped with multimillion-dollar penalties for just this sort of setup.

New York City was forced to ban the practice of stripping detainees accused of minor offenses in 2001 after a lawsuit led to a nearly $50 million settlement. More recently, Philadelphia County courts agreed to stop strip-searching inmates charged with minor offenses — and were forced to pay $5.9 million, or $1,400 per detainee. And Nassau County, New York, and Cook County, Illinois, recently lost lawsuits over the same issue. (It's still unclear how much each of those suits will cost taxpayers.)

To date, lawsuits over wrongful deaths and the mistreatment of inmates on Arpaio's watch have cost the county an estimated $43 million, according to Maricopa County's risk management office. And once you've wasted that much money, well, a few million bucks in payments to detainees must seem like chump change.

In their pleadings, Arpaio's attorneys argue that the searches in question don't actually constitute a "strip search."

They call it "dress down."

But that innocuous phrase hardly gets at the degrading, exploitative practices now in place in Maricopa County.

Consider what happened to Michelle Miguel, the woman who made the mistake of driving in Chandler on a suspended license.

First, after failing to make bail, Miguel and seven other detainees in the same situation were taken to a room and ordered to take off all their clothes. They were then forced to spend 10 to 15 minutes standing around, naked, waiting to be given jail uniforms. Never mind that three of the women were menstruating; a detention officer refused to even give them new sanitary napkins because she was "too busy."

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske