Woman claims rights violated

Posted Feb. 16, 2010, at 9:21 p.m.

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

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

Kravchuk’s decision is subject to review by U.S. District Judge John Woodcock.

Peter Marchesi, the Waterville lawyer representing the county, said Tuesday he would file an objection to Kravchuk’s decision. That objection most likely would result in a hearing on the matter before Woodcock to be held before the scheduling of a jury trial.

Woodcock could overrule Kravchuk’s decision and dismiss the lawsuit.

Efforts to reach Oxley’s attorney, Dale Thistle of Newport, were unsuccessful Tuesday.

In the lawsuit, filed on Jan. 16, 2009, in U.S. District Court in Bangor, 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 unreasonable 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 at the jail, according to court documents.

In her 30-page decision, Kravchuk said 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 close proximity to those who had been found in possession of drugs and whether such a policy violated an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Oxley 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 last four 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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