The Virginia American Civil Liberties Union chapter filed suit yesterday to halt the practice by Arlington sheriff's deputies of routinely strip searching anyone incarcerated in the county jail.
The practice, ACLU lawyers contend, violates constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure and cruel and unusual punishment. It is defended by the sheriff's department on grounds it is necessary for security at the jail.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on behalf of two Arlington residents, Laurie deMier and Mark Weitzel, who were strip-searched by deputies who serve as jail guards after being arrested on unrelated misdemeanor charges, neither of which led to convictions.
DeMier, a 32-year-old publications director, was arrested by Arlington police in her apartment on a charge of violating the county noise ordinance by playing her stereo too loud. Weitzel, 23, a former computer specialist, was arrested at his home on a charge of violating Virginia's obscenity law because of comments he wrote on the back of a check when he paid a speeding ticket.
Named as defendants were Arlington Sheriff James Gondles, four unnamed sheriff's deputies and former Arlington Police Officer Sidney Phillips, who, court papers claim, used "unreasonable and excessive force" in arresting deMier, who allegedly suffered extensive facial injuries.
Police officials and County Attorney Jerry K. Emrich declined to comment on the suit. Gondles defended the county's six-year-old strip-search policy by saying, "the Supreme Court says we can do it and we are responsible for the safety of everybody who is committed to our custody." The Supreme Court decision he cited permits searches of prisoners after they have had visitors; the ACLU argues that it does not apply in the Arlington case, in which prisoners are searched when initially confined to jail.
A federal judge in Alexandria recently rejected an individual's suit challenging the strip-search policy in Arlington. ACLU lawyers hope a higher court will reverse that decision as they press their own suit.
In court papers and a telephone interview, deMier said her encounter with authorities began shortly after 10 p.m. on Nov. 11, 1979, when two uniformed Arlington police officers knocked on the door of her apartment in the high-rise Crystal Towers complex, saying they had a complaint that her stereo was too loud. DeMier said that when the officers refused to show identification, she refused to open her door and they left. An hour later, she said, five men including Phillips, the arresting officer, returned with a warrant, broke down her door, frisked, handcuffed and arrested her. While leaving her apartment, she said, Phillips verbally abused and shoved her, causing her to fall down. She said she suffered extensive dental and facial injuries.
At the jail, she said, a magistrate "told me I was a troublemaker who had no respect for the law" and ordered her held under $100 bond. Before she could call friends to bail her out, she was stripped and searched, she claims, and while waiting for friends she was held in a cold cell for more than two hours.
A month later she was acquitted of a charge of violating the county noise ordinance by an Arlington General District Court judge.
Weitzel, according to court papers and his own account, was given a $34 speeding ticket by a Virginia State Trooper near Staunton while returning from a kayak trip in West Virginia last May.
"Of course I wasn't too happy about it, and as I was sitting at my desk paying my bills I decided to have some silly, stupid fun and wrote some things on the ticket and check," he said. Among them: "This sucks" and "Law enforcement is a joke" and "real crime continues unaffected . . . while honest people are subject to extreme harassment by moronic hypocrites . . . No wonder there's such contempt for the 'pigs.'"
Weitzel said two state troopers arrived at his door Aug. 13 and told him he was under arrest for violating the state's obscenity law. "I was amazed and I thought they'd just give me a piece of paper and tell me to show up in court." Instead, he was driven to the Arlington jail where a magistrate imposed a $500 cash bond. Weitzel says he was forced to undergo a strip search during the 20 minutes it took for a bondsman to arrive.
ACLU attorney Leonard Rubenstein said charges against Weitzel were recently dropped by the Augusta County prosecutor's office.