A Baltimore federal court judge has ordered Montgomery County to stop its practice of routinely strip-searching everyone who is arrested and temporarily detained at the Montgomery County Detention Center.
U.S. District Court Judge Shirley B. Jones, in an 11-page injunction, said county residents who temporarily are detained should not be "subjected unnecessarily to humiliating, degrading strip-searches." She suggested the county find alternative methods of searching such people for weapons and contraband they may try to smuggle into the jail.
The judge's ruling has no effect on individuals who are in jail on criminal charges and awaiting trial.
The merits of the policy must be fully argued in court. But attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union argued in July for a preliminary injunction using Vivian Anderson Smith's November 1981 experience as their example.
Smith was arrested at her home by Montgomery County sheriff's deputies last Nov. 12 for failing to appear for a New Jersey court child support hearing. When she arrived at the detention center, she was ordered to remove her clothing and squat while a female guard inspected her vaginal and anal cavaties in the presence of another female detainee, according to court papers.
Smith then showered and was placed in a holding cell where she stayed overnight with the other female detainee, court records show.
"We do not argue that the strip search is never justified," said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU in Washington. "But we maintain it shouldn't be used for someone who is temporarily being held after an arrest for jaywalking or eating a turkey sandwich on the subway or failing to appear in a civil case."
Arlington County and the District of Columbia have struggled over similar controversial strip-search policies. A new Virginia law banning such searches in most misdemeanor cases was passed after a woman who had been arrested for allegedly eating food on a Metro train was strip searched. D.C. jail officials agreed to halt the practice last year after several women arrested during a protest at the White House were forced to submit to a search.
Gary Blake, director of the Montgomery County Department of Corrections, said he will abide by the injunction while the case is being argued, but that the policy is essential "for the safety of people coming into the jail and for the safety of the staff." In past searches, Blake said, his staff has found drugs and drug paraphernalia, knives, razor blades and guns.
Temporary detainees like Vivian Smith constitute less than one percent of the roughly 4,000 men and women who are are strip-searched in the center each year, he said.