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WEST v. MURPHY, NO. 13-2014

Decided: November 14, 2014

The Fourth Circuit held that the appellees were entitled to qualified immunity, and affirmed the district court’s grant of appellees’ motions for summary judgment.

The named appellants, who went through the booking process at the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center (“Central Booking”), represent a certified class of individuals arrested between May 12, 2002 and April 30, 2008 “(a) on charges [or in cases] not involving weapons, drugs, or felony violence, and (b) strip searched (c) prior to or without presentment before a court commissioner or other judicial officer.” Appellants brought suit against two former wardens of Central Booking challenging the constitutionality of the strip searches, which were conducted in a room with other arrestees. Appellees filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis that they were entitled to qualified immunity. The motion was initially denied, but an intervening decision by the U.S. Supreme Court caused the district court to reverse course its summary judgment decision. In Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington, 132 S. Ct 1510 (2012), the U.S. Supreme Court held that all detainees admitted to the general population may be subjected to “a close visual inspection while undressed.” The district court determined that this decision overruled some aspects of Fourth Circuit precedent that it had relied on in denying the Appellees’ motion for summary judgment.

Under the doctrine of qualified immunity, a government official is immune from suit if: (1) the facts are sufficient to show a violation of a constitutional right, and (2) the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the alleged misconduct. The Fourth Circuit noted that a right is clearly established if a reasonable official would have known that his conduct violated that right. Appellees contend, that Florence demonstrated that the law was not clearly established. The Court, however, emphasized that the relevant inquiry is whether the law was clearly established at the time of the search. This timing aspect is “tethered to the need for notice.” Thus, the Florence decision that was issued after the alleged violation does not affect whether the law was clearly established at the time of the conduct, unless the Florence decision itself established whether the law was clearly established at the time of the challenged official action. Here, the Court noted that Florence did not demonstrate that the law on jail strip searches either was or was not clearly established at the time the alleged searches were conducted.

The Court then turned to three other cases, relied on by Appellants, where the Court had previously found strip searches unconstitutional. The Court, however, concluded that those cases did not clearly establish that the Appellees’ alleged conduct was unlawful. Unlike the Appellees’ alleged conduct, which was conducted in a search room, the conduct at issue in those cases was in a much more public setting and more intrusive. Furthermore, there were no security reasons strong enough to justify the nature of the searches in those cases. Because there was no precedent that would provide fair notice, the Court determined that the law on strip searches in jails was undeveloped, and that “the immunity defense [did] not permit [it] to tax correction officers with clairvoyance.” Accordingly, the Court held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

Judge Wynn concurred in the majority’s opinion, but wrote a separate concurrence to emphasize the importance of addressing the constitutionality of strip-searching detainees out of the general population.

Full Opinion

Abigail Forrister