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."
After being shackled and handcuffed to another woman, Miguel was bused to the county's Estrella Jail. There, in a room with three other female detainees, she was forced to stand in a line, then strip naked. After that, the four women were told to lift their breasts, spread their cheeks, and squat and cough before being permitted to put their clothes back on.
The outside lawyer handling this case for the county, Georgia Staton of Jones Skelton Hochuli, declined comment.
Even if you think it's okay to force detainees to stand around naked, as they do at the Fourth Avenue Jail, you simply can't claim that what happens to the women assigned to the Estrella Jail is merely a "dress down." Being forced to expose your most intimate places to a detention officer, being forced to squat while naked, being forced to do all of this not only in front of a strange detention officer, but other naked strangers — the sheriff's policies are the very definition of an unreasonable search.
I know we rarely listen to logic here in Maricopa County. We like to defend our stupid policies for as long as we can — damn the billable hours!
But I can only hope this is that rare case where someone takes a hard look at the county's policies and the relevant case law. And unless Sheriff Arpaio agrees to make changes now, rather than let damages multiply as this suit wends its way through the courts, he should be put on notice: Keep strip-searching everyone in jail, and the county will hold you personally liable, Sheriff.
Now that ought to get his attention.
In November, I told you about the struggling independent union formed to represent workers at Professional Medical Transport, or PMT Ambulance, the Valley's fastest-growing ambulance company.
Following complaints from the union, a labor-relations judge had issued a stinging rebuke of the company, saying that it wrongly — and illegally — tried to stop the union at every turn. The 29-page opinion cited the company for, among other things, failing to negotiate with the union, unilaterally changing benefits, threatening its leaders with reprisal, and creating a hostile environment, down to surveillance cameras in the workplace.
PMT is now appealing that decision. But in the meantime, ambulance workers have gotten a much-needed boost from an unlikely source: local firefighters.
As the judge explained in his opinion, PMT was able to keep "troublesome" workers in check by taking away their shifts. Who got them instead? Moonlighting firefighters.
The relationship between local firefighters and PMT isn't surprising: PMT part-owner Pat Cantelme was president of the Local 493 union for 20 years before he moved into the private sector, representing firefighters in Phoenix, Tempe, Chandler, Peoria, and Glendale. PMT has been able to ink contracts with some of those municipalities simply because the politically powerful Local 493 threw its weight behind its old leader's venture.
But that support may be coming to an end.
Soon after my story was published, two union leaders took a courageous stand for the embattled PMT workers. In letters e-mailed in December, both Bryan Jeffries — a Mesa firefighter and president of the union there — and Tim Hill, president of the state firefighters union, the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, called for firefighters to stop working at PMT.
"I urge you all to consider what our response would be if one of our employers decided to unilaterally replace a person on our trucks with part-time employees from private ambulance companies or Rural/Metro Fire to save money or put pressure on us to destroy our union and our contract," Hill wrote in his letter. "Such activity would call for the strongest possible response . . .
"Therefore, effective immediately, it is the formal position of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona and the United Phoenix Firefighters Local 493 . . . that members discontinue employment with PMT Ambulance immediately."
Hill and Jeffries say that the firefighters' boycott should continue until PMT signs an "equitable labor agreement" with its union.
"I realize that with some, this may not be a popular position," Jeffries wrote. "However, in my view, it is the right position."
Indeed, it can't be hard for firefighters to side with the lowly "barneys" who work on ambulances, especially when it means standing up to their former leader, Cantelme, who's still popular with membership.
But Jeffries is correct: It is the right thing to do. Until PMT can get its own house in order, the firefighters need to heed Jeffries' courageous call and refrain from accepting shifts from the company.
PHIL GORDON, CLEARED
This one is hardly a shock, but Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon has been officially cleared of any illegality in the payments Gordon's campaign made to his girlfriend, Elissa Mullany.
Gordon began dating Mullany, his fundraiser, soon after the 2007 campaign. Both are separated from their spouses, although not yet divorced.
But even though Gordon has had little need for fundraising in the past two years — he's facing term limits and plans to leave for the private sector when his term as mayor is over — he's continued to pay Mullany big bucks. Her two-person company has earned $140,000 from various campaign accounts, or roughly 52 percent of all the money accrued.
Gordon has also used his campaign accounts to pay for Mullany's travel. And he's gotten her more work — and more money — from various initiatives associated with the city, including his much ballyhooed Phoenix Global Trade Initiative, which folded last year after paying Mullany $12,000 and sending her to Dubai.
As I explained from the beginning, though, none of this is illegal unless Gordon is somehow benefiting personally from Mullany's fees. The law forbids public officials from using their campaign funds to enrich themselves, a prohibition that extends to anyone related by "blood or marriage."
So Gordon couldn't be paying his estranged wife through the fund. But when, at Gordon's request, former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Zlaket did a formal review of the payments, Zlaket concluded that payments to his girlfriend are a-okay.
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You've got to love Arizona law, eh?
Frankly, I couldn't help but think of Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley, who faces a felony indictment for raising money to run for the National Association of Counties and, allegedly, using it instead on spa treatments for his family and hair implants and electronics at Bang & Olufsen.
Stapley simply wasn't thinking. Everybody knows you can't spend that money on your wife.
Dude should have taken a mistress.