A U.S. District Court judge yesterday found the District of Columbia government and the city police department guilty of contempt of court because police last May strip-searched a 52-year-old Falls Church woman who had been arrested for not paying a $2 parking lot fee.
Judge June L. Green said the police action violated her 1975 order banning the use of strip searches for persons arrested for minor parking or traffic offenses. She ordered the city to pay a $500 fine and to pay $500 in attorneys' fees for the woman who was searched, Bettye Heathcock.
Heathcock's attorney, Greta C. Van Susteren, said in court papers that Heathcock, who worked as a typesetter at the D.C. Bar Association, was arrested in a parking lot, owned by PMI properties, near the bar offices on H Street NW. After she entered the lot and was informed of its fees, she decided it was too expensive and attempted to leave.
The lot attendant refused to allow her to leave without paying the $2 charge for one hour's parking. She refused to pay and was arrested by plainclothes officers on a charge of "false pretenses," according to court documents filed in the case. She was then taken to the 2nd District police station, ordered to strip down to her underwear and searched.
While Heathcock was waiting for paperwork connected with the arrest to be completed, a ring belonging to her was discovered missing. She and a cellmate were accused of stealing the ring, according to the court documents.
They were then fully stripped and searched again. An officer also searched Heathcock's mouth and ears for the ring, which was never found, Van Susteren said in an interview.
Heathcock argued in court papers that the "degrading and humiliating . . . searches were in direct contravention" of Green's order. Attorneys for the District argued that Heathcock's case was not similar to the ones leading to Green's ban on such searches, since, although the charges were later dropped, she was originally arrested on a charge of false pretenses, not for a driving or traffic offense.
Heathcock has also sued the District of Columbia, the parking lot owners and the arresting officers for a total of $9 million in compensatory and punitive damages as a result of the incident.
In a suit filed in federal district court last month, Heathcock claimed that her constitutional rights were violated, she was assaulted by police officers, was falsely arrested and imprisoned, was slandered by the parking lot owners and that her privacy was invaded.