As we mentioned earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote Monday that law enforcement officials are within their rights


King County Jails in No Hurry to Change Strip-Search Procedures

As we mentioned earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote Monday that law enforcement officials are within their rights to strip search people arrested for any offense - even the small ones - before admitting them to jail. The statement holds true even if officials have no reason to suspect the presence of contraband.

Though Justice Stephen Breyer called the strip searching of inmates headed to jail for minor offenses not involving drugs or violence "unreasonable," and forbidden by the 4th Amendment, the court disagreed - with Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr. joining Justice Anthony Kennedy to form the court's prevailing opinion. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan sided with Breyer to form the court's dissenting opinion.

Reached for comment, King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention spokesman Commander William Hayes says that while any ruling that better allows law enforcement officials to limit the amount of contraband entering King County jails is welcomed, there are already procedures in place that, while more restrictive than the Supreme Court's recent ruling, seem to be doing the job just fine.

"Any time we have the ability to limit the amount of contraband that's introduced into the facility, which is how we'd look at it, that's a benefit to us," says Hayes of the Supreme Court's ruling. "Just because [a prisoner is] on a misdemeanor charge doesn't mean they don't have drugs or aren't hiding something else on their person. When you can't strip search them, that limits your ability to limit the amount of contraband introduced."

Hayes says the county's current strip-search procedures were established by a case from the early '80s, Grew vs. King County, in which Seattle's Shirley Grew was arrested at a 1982 Halloween party after police received a noise complaint that was later dropped. Grew was subjected to a strip search and cavity check upon arriving at jail, and later teamed with the ACLU to file suit against King County. Two other women joined Grew's suit, and U.S. District Court Judge Donald S. Voorhees subsequently banned the strip search of anyone booked into King County Jail unless a court order has been issued or jail security is believed to be threatened.

Calling it a "shot in the dark," estimate, and "off the top of my head," Hayes says roughly 50-percent of inmates entering King County jails are currently strip searched, with the deciding factor being whether there's probable cause to believe the prisoner might be harboring contraband, along with the inmate's specific charges and conviction status.

Hayes says every strip search conducted at King County jails is documented

"For everybody that is strip searched we fill out a form explaining why and the justification behind it," says Hayes. "We don't just arbitrarily strip search people. There's a document that's attached to the person if they are strip searched."

In regard to offenses deemed minor, Hayes says, "Typical misdemeanor that come in we don't strip search, because that's not part of the normal process for us, unless there's some sort of probable cause, or if there's some behavioral issues, or we believe they may have some sort of medical condition that we need to know about."

Currently, Hayes says King County is discussing with attorneys how to proceed given the new Supreme Court ruling, although he notes the matter isn't the agency's most pressing.

"We've had some internal discussions, but we really haven't made any decision about what we're going to do with the next step," says Hayes.

"We have a policy in place, and we're comfortable with it for the most part," Hayes continues. "We document all strip searches, and personally I don't see that part of it changing. I think it's important to show why you're strip searching someone."

The New York Times reported on the Supreme Court's ruling, dropping this locally-relevant gem toward the end of the lengthy account of the case:

Justice Kennedy said one person arrested for disorderly conduct in Washington State "managed to hide a lighter, tobacco, tattoo needles and other prohibited items in his rectal cavity."

For his part, Hayes - who has nearly three decades experience - tells The Seattle Weekly it's not so much what you find, but where you find it.

"Tobacco is a huge contraband issue in jail. Nicotine may be worth more in jail than actual drugs," says Hayes. "I've been doing this almost 28 years and I've seen people bring in stuff that might shock you. It's more about how they try to introduce the contraband into the facility and where they place it - that's probably more shocking than the actual item itself."

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