The practice of strip-searching everyone who is jailed in the Montgomery County Detention Center is being challenged by a Silver Spring woman who says she was humiliated with a strip-search when she was arrested for a $10 traffic violation.
The woman, Mary Bracken Polk, filed a $2.7 million lawsuit Jan. 25 in county circuit court against the jail, the county government, the police department and several county officials. She was arrested at her home just over a year ago for failing to appear for a court hearing on a charge that she did not have a Maryland driver's license, charges that were later dropped for lack of evidence.
Although Polk reportedly showed the police a court notice showing an upcoming trial date in the case, she still was arrested. Because she could not meet the $5,000 bond, she was jailed overnight, causing Montgomery County jail officials to follow their standard practice of strip-searching her first.
Her suit charges the county with false imprisonment, assault and battery through the strip-search, defamation, and malicious prosecution.
The D.C. branch of the American Civil Liberties Union calls the policy unconstitutional, saying it resembles some of the strip-search policies that have been abandoned by police in the District of Columbia and Arlington.
The Montgomery County policy differs from the situation in Arlington, where strip-searches used to be conducted on all those arrested, whether they were subsequently jailed or not. Strip-searches in those instances were stopped by the county sheriff. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled last fall that searches where arrests were not involved are unconstitutional.
Polk's attorney, Theresa Mulholland, argues that the strip-search should not have been performed because Polk had no prior criminal record and posed no danger to anyone.
Gary Blake, county corrections department director, defended the strip-search policy, saying it is necessary for the safety of other inmates, jail staff, and the person being searched.
"We process and treat everyone the same, regardless of the charge they are being brought in for," Blake said. "We don't have any guarantees about how a person is going to behave . . . You need a policy that is consistent and fair to everyone and I think we have that."
The searches take place in a private room of the jail and persons are searched by a jail official of their same sex, officials said. Medical personnel infrequently assist in more thorough body searches.
The Montgomery County jail policy, begun in 1973, requires that all people who have been charged and who will be jailed are subjected to a visual and "cavity" search of their ears, nostrils, navel, mouth and anus.
Art Spitzer, legal director for the Washington ACLU, stated, " strip-searches should be permissible only if there is reason to believe that a person may be concealing contraband or a concealed weapon."
Assistant County Attorney Carol Jeffries disagreed, saying, "There is sufficient case law to support the policies the county uses . . . When the Fourth Circuit opinion was issued, I checked and found the county to be in good standing legally."
Polk claims she was strip-searched under the threat of "physical force and violence" by Denise Dobson, a receiving officer at the jail and a defendant in the case. The lawsuit further charges that the search was "humiliating, dehumanizing and offensive in the extreme and thus constituted a willful and wanton assault and battery."
When Polk appeared before Judge Irma Baker for a bond review the morning after her imprisonment, the judge reduced her bond to $25 based on the trial date notice Polk had shown the patrolmen, according to court records. At that trial, the charge against Polk was dismissed for lack of evidence, her attorney said.
Although offensive, the searches are necessary, said Assistant County Attorney Carol Jeffries. "I don't disparage the sense of outrage that any individual goes through" in such situations, she said, "but I see no alternatives that would protect that individual, the other inmates and jail personnel."
The strip-searches are not limited to the jail. Montgomery County police spokesman Phil Caswell says strip-searches sometimes are performed at the discretion of arresting officers at police district stations. Caswell said such searches occur only when there is reason to believe a suspect is concealing a weapon or contraband.
Caswell acknowledged there are times, although rare, when the strip-searches at the district stations are performed by men on women, and vice versa. This occurs "if he or she police officer sees any weapon or observes a person hiding a weapon or evidence" on their bodies, he said.