The legal secretary, arrested in Arlington on a drunk driving charge, had been told by a magistrate that she could leave the county jail if a friend picked her up. Her ride was coming in 20 minutes.

In that short time, the woman -- like all prisoners who entered the confines of the jail -- was led into a stark, cinderblock bathroom and ordered to take off all of her clothes. She did. When she refused a command to bend over for the jail's mandatory visual check of her "body cavities," she says, she was placed naked in a cold cell to await her friend's arrival.

What happened to the 30-year-old woman happened to 4,500 other people in Arlington last year. Many of them were arrested, jailed briefly and strip-searched for infractions as minor as writing obscenities on a traffic ticket or playing a stereo too loudly.

The secretary calls her ordeal "one of the worst things I've ever been through." Her feelings of humiliation and outrage were shared by each of six other victims interviewed recently -- a 55-year-old cleaning woman, an off-duty District police officer, the publications director for a Washington trade association, an engineer, a lawyer and an air traffic controller.

Unlike authorities in other suburban jurisdictions in the Washington area and most communities around the country, Arlington Sheriff Jim Gondles requires that all persons held in the county jail -- however briefly -- must submit to strip-searches. Under Virginia law, each local sheriff may determine when and whether to enforce such a policy.

"I strip-search everybody because . . . I don't want anybody to hurt themselves, my deputies or other inmates. I want to maintain a secure facility whether people are going to be here five minutes or five days," says the 33-year-old, first-term Democrat, who stoutly defends his policy.

Gondles has been defending himself a lot lately. There has been a shower of criticism, not only from those strip-searched but from local politicians, including the sheriff's Democratic allies, and even fellow law enforcement officers. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit to try to impose strict limits on the practice.

"It's an example of idiotic bureaucracy, a very foolish and outrageous policy," says Democratic Del. Mary A. Marshall, who represents Arlington in the state legislature.

"Only until you have been told to take off your clothes and lean against a wall spread-eagled can you know how dehumanizing it is," adds Fairfax County Sheriff M. Wayne Huggins, a former police officer who has performed strip-searches. "Other than rape, strip-searching is one of the most dehumanizing things that can happen to a person."

Alexandria police Chief Charles T. Strobel calls Arlington's policy "an exercise in futility," especially if a person is going to be detained for a short time. Strobel and others say weapons can be detected in a routine frisk or pat-down search.

"[Gondles'] security argument is a bunch of malarkey," says Marianna Stanley, a retired Arlington deputy sheriff who also carried out strip-searches. "There's no reason to strip-search anybody brought in on a misdemeanor because 90 percent of those people make bond anyway" and are released.

Gondles rejects as inadequate the security practices used by other jail officials. Law enforcement officers in all jurisdictions frisk prisoners when they deem it necessary. All conduct strip-searches if they believe someone is carrying drugs, concealing a weapon or acting suspiciously. Some, including Fairfax, use metal detectors and trained dogs to find weapons or drugs.

Gondles agrees that the practice is degrading and stesses that his officers do not enjoy performing the task.

"Strip-searching brings images of Nazism and concentration camps, but I don't know what in the world I would tell the widow or widower of a deputy sheriff if one of them got killed. If the policy got changed it would be big news and would open up the jail for significant amounts of drugs or weapons," says the stocky, Oklahoma-born sheriff, who was a deputy for seven years before his election in 1979.

Others disagree.

"There's always a security justification . . . for any issue having to do with criminal justice," says Leonard Rubenstein, president of the Virginia chapter of the ACLU. "There's always a risk in life, but you don't throw out the Constitution for a risk that infinitesimal."

The ACLU filed suit last month in federal court to halt the country's blanket policy, a practice they say violates consitutional protections against unreasonable searches and cruel and unusual punishment.

The group wants to ban such searches except when there is reason to believe someone is concealing drugs or weapons or when a person will be in contact with inmates for an extended period.

Some Arlington political leaders are dismayed by the glare of unfavorable publicity on a county that has had the reputation as the most liberal in Virginia.

"I think a lot of us are embarrassed that this nice, clean-as-a-whistle, League-of-Women-Voters type county is in the limelight for this, " says Elise Heinz, a Democratic delegate who represents Arlington and Alexandria in Richmond. "It's very hard to believe that it's necessary in Arlington if it's not necessary everywhere else."

The policy was instituted by Gondles' mentor, retired sheriff J. Elwood Clements, six years ago after a police officer was fatally shot in a police cruiser by a suspect who pulled a gun from his pants. The man had been arrested for shoplifting 97 cents worth of soft drinks and cupcakes.

Since then, no drugs or weapons (other than those made on the inside) have been found in periodic shakedowns at the jail, a record Gondles attributes to the strip-search policy.

But Fairfax and Montgomery counties, which rarely strip-search people who are not going to be detained for longer than 24 hours, boast the same record. Prince George's County officials say they occasionally find drugs and weapons during shakedowns, but report no injuries to inmates or jail personnel in more than a year.

In the Alexandria police lock-up, prisoners are rarely strip-searched. Officials acknowledge that some weapons are discovered later when prisoners are taken to the jail and required to take supervised showers. But even so, authorities note, no one has ever been injured.

"Nationally, Arlington's is a very unusual policy -- it's an overreaction," says Craig Dobson of the Justice Department's National Institute of Corrections. Dobson says there are no precise figures, but it appears that most communities allow strip-searches only when persons are going to be held for extended periods.

Dobson says complaints about strip-searches have increased dramatically in recent years following a widely publicized lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the Chicago police.

Earlier this year, as a result of that suit, Chicago officials agreed not to strip-search persons arrested for traffic or other minor violations, and to conduct strip-searches only after providing written explanations of their reasons for doing so. In 1975, a federal court in the District of Columbia ordered officials to stop blanket strip-searches.

Recently, even Gondles appears to be wavering on whether to continue the policy. During two interviews, the sheriff first adamantly told a reporter that blanket strip-searching will remain his policy "until a court tells me otherwise." But two days later, after a radio interview and a "Good Morning America" segment featured an Arlington woman who had been strip-searched after her arrest for playing her stereo too loud, Gondles said he was considering changing the policy.