A federal appeals court yesterday ruled that Arlington's now-abandoned policy of indiscriminately strip-searching all persons admitted to the county jail was unconstitutional and opened the door for individuals subjected to the searches to sue for damages.
A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the search of Northern Virginia attorney Lucy N. Logan, who had been arrested on a drunken driving charge, was "conclusively shown to be unconstitutional" and "bore no discernible relationship to security needs." The panel ordered that the case be returned to the lower court for retrial.
"Outstanding!" exclaimed Logan's attorney Thomas A. Guidoboni of Washington when he learned of the panel's unanimous decision. Logan, who was later cleared of the driving charge, could not be reached for comment.
"That's all I need -- more stomach pains," groaned Arlington Sheriff James A. Gondles, from his bed at Arlington Hospital where he is undergoing treatment for suspected ulcers. "I inherited the strip-search policy and hindsight is better than foresight.
"No comment," said acting Arlington County attorney Charles A. Flinn. He did not say whether the county would appeal the case to the Supreme Court.
Gondles abandoned the policy of strip-searching all persons admitted to his jail in December after intense political pressure generated by publicity, lawsuits and public criticism from area sheriffs and his own political allies. Authorities in area jurisdictions and most communities around the country require only those admitted to the jail for an extended period to take showers or undergo strip searches.
The strongly worded 19-page ruling by the appeals court said that a U.S. District Court jury must decide whether to award Logan monetary damages from Arlington's former sheriff J. Elwood Clements, the female jail guard who searched her in March 1979, and Arlington County.
The appeals court panel also chided District Judge Oren R. Lewis, saying he erred in dismissing Logan's lawsuit and in denying her request for a permanent injunction against the controversial policy, which the appeals court granted.
Arlington's search policy was instituted in l974 by former sheriff Clements, Gondles' predecessor, after a county police officer was fatally shot in a squad car by a shoplifting suspect who had hidden a gun in his pants.
Last year alone, more than 4,500 people were strip-searched in Arlington for infractions as minor as playing a stereo too loudly or eating a sandwich on the subway. After officials of his own Democratic party called the policy "idiotic" and "outrageous," Gondles agreed to strip-search only those who were being admitted to the jail for an extended period or those officers believe might be hiding weapons or contraband in their "body cavities."
Since December, Gondles said yesterday, about l5 people, who were being held briefly in detention cells, have been strip-searched.
"The mark of a human being is to admit they didn't do something right," Gondles said. "I just hope and pray nobody ever gets hurt in the holding area or hurts themself."
Logan was arrested on charges of drunken driving and refusing to take an alcohol breath test after she was involved in a two-car collision near the Arlington Courthouse. Logan said she was arrested at 7:45 p.m. but not allowed to call a lawyer until about l0:l5 p.m.
The court rejected Logan's claim that she was unconstitutionally deprived of her right to make a telephone call and said Arlington's policy of detaining all drunk driving suspects for four hours or until someone calls for them was sound.
But the court said that Logan was charged with offenses "not commonly associated by its very nature with the possession of weapons or contraband; there was no cause in her specific case to believe she might possess either; and when strip-searched, she had been at the detention center for one and one-half hours without even a pat-down search.
"An indiscriminate strip-search policy routinely applied to detainees cannot be constitutionally justified," the appeals court said, "simply on the basis of administrative ease in attending to security considerations."
Angered by the Arlington controversy, The Virginia General Assembly earlier this year passed a law prohibiting strip-searches of most people charged with misdeameanors.
Also contributing to this article was Washington Post Staff Writer Glenn Frankel.