Judge rules jail strip-search suit can go to trial

Posted May 30, 2010, at 10:16 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A federal judge has ruled that a local woman’s lawsuit alleging she was illegally strip-searched at the Penobscot County Jail more than three years ago may go forward.

U.S. District Judge John Woodcock on Tuesday found that a jury should decide whether jail officials violated the constitutional rights of Tina Oxley, 36, of Bangor when she was strip-searched Jan. 19, 2007, after being arrested for allegedly driving with a suspended license.

The judge heard oral arguments last Monday on a motion for summary judgment filed by Peter Marchesi, who represents Penobscot County and the jail.

Efforts to reach Marchesi and Oxley’s attorney, Dale Thistle of Newport, were unsuccessful Friday.

A jury trial has been tentatively scheduled to begin Aug. 3 in U.S. District Court in Bangor.

In her lawsuit, filed two years after her arrest, Oxley claimed she should not have been strip-searched because there was no suspicion that she was concealing drugs, weapons or evidence of a crime. Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects against unreason-able searches and seizures, such suspicion is required before a person can be strip-searched, according to the suit.

The county, however, argued that Oxley was legally strip-searched because a bag of cocaine was found in the pocket of a passenger in her car who was arrested at the same time for unpaid fines. The two women rode to the jail together in the back of a squad car, and Oxley’s handcuffs came undone by themselves, according to court documents.

Case law related to strip-searches, Woodcock wrote in affirming the recommended decision U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret Kravchuk issued in February, distinguishes between strip-searching a person who will be held overnight or longer in a jail or prison and one who is expected to be released after being processed.

“The court is dubious about whether the county defendants’ strip search of Ms. Oxley was in fact related to a security purpose,” Woodcock wrote. “There is no evidence that Ms. Oxley was going to be subject to an extended detention, that she was ever going to be introduced into the inmate population of the jail, or that whatever limited contact she could have had with inmates provided a realistic opportunity to dispense contraband.”

Both judges found there were enough facts in dispute in the case to require a jury to decide whether the county had a policy to routinely strip-search people brought into the jail because they had been in proximity to those who had been found in possession of drugs and whether such a pol-icy violated an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights.

“At a minimum,” Woodcock wrote in his 12-page decision, “Ms. Oxley has raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the county strip searched her due to security concerns or to see if she was carrying her own drugs or drugs [her passenger] passed to her after the stop.

“The county conceded at oral argument that if Ms. Oxley’s strip search was investigative, not security-based, probable cause would have been required. Ms. Oxley has raised a question of fact as to whether the county had the required level of suspicion.”

Oxley has claimed she was severely harmed emotionally by what happened at the jail, her attorney told the Bangor Daily News last year.

The woman, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because of her experience, according to the lawsuit, is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. She claimed she is seeing a psychiatrist and therapist weekly and lives in fear of being arrested and strip-searched again.

Oxley’s lawsuit did not seek class-action status. Within the past 4½ years, York and Knox counties have settled large class-action lawsuits over strip-searches. Damages totaling $3 million in each of those cases were awarded to plaintiffs who could show they had been strip-searched illegally.

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