The plane that returned her from a Christmas holiday with her family had been delayed and Caricia Fisher was worried about being late as the Metro train pulled out of the National Airport station and sped her toward her government job in the District. It was about 10:30 a.m. when she pulled her turkey sandwich out of her bag and took a quick bite of the lunch she wouldn't have time for later.

Within seconds a Metro transit policeman was standing over her and angrily calling her attention to the "No Food" sign in the nearly empty car.

"I think I asked him if I could have one more bite -- I was so hungry," recalls the British-born Fisher, 25.". . . The next thing I know he was trying to put handcuffs on me."

Thus began what Fisher claims was a horrifying and humiliating brush with the law that ended 31 hours later at the Arlington County Jail. In between, she says, she was denied her right to an attorney, stripped of her clothes, searched for weapons or drugs and detained overnight in a chilly isolation cell, clad only in her underpants.

Fisher, outraged, has filed suit in U.S. District Court in Washington against Arlington and its various law enforcement authorities and against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, charging them with "reckless disregard of [her] constitutional rights."

Her case has renewed attention to the way in which Metro and Arlington authorities handle seemingly minor violations of the law. Her suit is also the latest legal challenge to the strip search, a common law enforcement practice that is being attacked nationwide as inappropriate in many arrest and detention situations.

"It's come up in many places around the country, and our position is that it's a terrible policy," argues Arthur Spitzer, legal director for the D.C. ioffice of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's a very serious invasion of one's person and privacy, and the level of search ought to be tailored to the level of offense."

All too often, Spitzer complains, "the strip search is used as a form of immediate punishment and threat -- especially against women."

The experience can be a particularly bitter one if, as in Fisher's case, the charge that led to the arrest -- "consuming food on a Metrorail car" -- is later dropped.

"I couldn't understand what was happening to me. I was pretty stunned," says Fisher, a shy District resident who is still so embarrassed about the incident that she won't allow herself to be photographed during interviews. She has pushed ahead with her suit, she says, only because "I wouldn't want anyone else to have to go through it.

Her trip to work last Dec. 26 was interrupted at the Pentagon station. That was where the transit policeman ordered her off the train, handcuffed her and radioed for assistance from two other officers. Although Metro officials dispute it, Fisher says she cooperated during this phase of her arrest and turned over her government employee card to verify her identity.

Still in handcuffs, Fisher says she was taken to the Arlington police station where she was told the sheriff wanted to ask her some questions. She says she immediately asked for an attorney or the chance to make a telephone call, but was told she would have to answer the questions first, or be put through the "booking" process that would include a strip search. Fisher refused to answer questions.

At this point, Fisher concedes, "I was feeling pretty harassed and upset."

Arlington authorities say she created quite a disturbance at the station, yelling and screaming obscenities. Fisher says she kept demanding to see an attorney. After male officers took her coat, boots, belt, watch and scarf, she says she was taken to a cell and kept there two hours until a female officer came and strip-searched her.

Although the procedure was performed quickly, Fisher recalls that the cell was "in full view" of male officers, although she is not sure if any were watching. At 4:15 p.m., she was allowed to call her supervisor to report what had happened. She also tried to telephone a friend for help in locating a lawyer. The friend was not in. He called back later and recommended two lawyers, but Fisher says she was told she could not contact them because she already had made her one phone call.

It was 5:30 p.m. when women officers took her to shower, washed her hair with an anti-lice shampoo, handed her a jail dress that she says wouldn't button, and escorted her to a cell.

"I was crying and arguing and probably shouting quite a bit," Fisher says.

"I'd had such a hard time already and I was really afraid to stay overnight." When she began to scream for a doctor and to threaten suicide -- "so they'd take me to a doctor" -- Fisher said she was taken to an isolation cell and kept there, wearing only underpants, for 15 hours until nearly 12:30 p.m. the next day.

"There were these bars and a door with a one-way window, and I could feel them looking in," says Fisher, who says she heard male voices making what she calls "derogatory" and "vulgar" remarks about her body.

Her jail ordeal ended the next afternoon when, exhausted, she said she was given another jail dress, taken before a magistrate and released. A week later she learned the charge against her had been dropped.

"In a way, being physically apprehended was the punishment," argues Fisher's attorney, Leslie Auerbach. He also disputes complaints about his client's behavior after her arrest, saying that if she caused such a disturbance, "why was she only charged with eating on the subway?"

Arlington authorities are reluctant to discuss the pending suit except to say that the county has a policy of searching any person who is going to be confined in the jail, regardless of the offense. The policy dates back to 1974 when an Arlington policeman was killed by a shoplifting suspect who had a gun in his boot.

"If they're going to jail, I can't have them in there with weapons or drugs," says Jim Gondles, Arlington's sheriff. "Arlington is still part of the U.S., we still believe in civil rights. I think that if everything was cool and if she hadn't caused any trouble, she would never have gone to jail."

The magistrate's office also refused to discuss the case, although a county source said police records show that a magistrate was advised of Fisher's arrest and agreed to her confinement shortly after she was brought to the station.

Cody Pfanstiehl, spokesman for Metro, said transit police are well trained and instructed to give warnings once or twice before making subway arrests.

"She was warned, you'd better believe it," he said yesterday. "And once we make the arrest we have no choice but to turn the person over to local authorities. We don't make the laws, we just enforce them, and I think the public appreciates the cleanliness of the cars."

Pfanstiehl said arrests for eating on the subway have happened twice before, once for eating an apple and once for eating a cookie.

A federal judge in Alexandria, acting on the suit of another woman who challenged the county's strip-search policy, has taken the case under advisement and is considering whether to grant an injunction against the practice except for serious offenses. Several years ago, as a result of a similar suit, a District judge banned strip searches except in cases of serious crimes. That suit was brought by a woman arrested and strip searched for a minor traffic violation.

Fisher's attorney, Auerbach, contends that Metro's arrest policy is unconstitutionally vague and leaves too much discretion to the officer. His client, who is seeking $300,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages, "acted as any reasonable person would have acted under the circumstances," he claims.