Judge rules search constitutional
By: Bennett Loudon//September 28, 2023
Judge rules search constitutional
By: Bennett Loudon//September 28, 2023//
A federal appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit in Chemung County where the plaintiff claims his civil rights were violated.
U.S. District Court Judge Frank P. Geraci Jr. dismissed the complaint filed by plaintiff Christopher M. Murphy, who claimed his civil rights were violated when he was strip searched at the Chemung County Jail and his release was delayed after posting bail.
Geraci granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants Chemung County, the city of Elmira, and several police officers and sheriff’s deputies.
The defense claimed the search was constitutional, the searching officer was entitled to qualified immunity and the two-hour delay in Murphy’s release did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.
The case started on June 5, 2014, when Murphy, who was 67 at the time, was on a bus in Elmira, Chemung County, and police officers removed him then arrested him on a misdemeanor bench warrant.
Murphy was taken to the Chemung County Jail, where a visual body cavity strip search was done. Murphy’s girlfriend promptly posted his bail, but his release was delayed about two hours.
Geraci dismissed the claims against the city and county at the start of the case, and eventually granted summary judgment dismissing the claims against the individual defendants also.
Geraci agreed with the defense that the search was constitutional, the searching officer was entitled to qualified immunity and the two-hour delay in Murphy’s release did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.
Murphy appealed, and the Second Circuit recently affirmed his decision in part and vacated in part.
Murphy was arrested on a bench warrant from Elmira City Court charging him with “maintaining a structure unfit for human occupancy,” in violation of § 107.1.3 of the New York State Property Maintenance Code, along with lesser offenses of violating the Property Maintenance Code and the state Fire Code.
Elmira City Court Judge Steven W. Forrest set bail at $750 cash or a $1,500 bond. Murphy’s girlfriend posted bail a short time after Murphy was in court.
Murphy was fingerprinted and photographed, and an officer told him: “Your bail’s sitting out there and we’re going to cut you loose,” or “We’ve got to cut you loose.”
But Murphy was placed in a holding cell. After about an hour the booking and admissions officer, William Washburn, removed Murphy from the cell and took him to a small room where a visual body cavity search was done. Murphy was then questioned by officers for 10 to 15 minutes, according to the Second Circuit decision,
“Murphy repeatedly asked when he would be released, noting that his bail had been posted,” the court wrote. At one point Washburn said, “He’s not going anywhere. He’s going to sit in my jail for a while.”
Murphy was eventually released shortly before 1 p.m., when he was due back in court before Forrest.
Strip searches in the county are governed by a policy that states: “Only those inmates that present a reasonable suspicion for being strip-searched will be strip-searched. All other new admissions that do not meet these criteria will be pat searched only.”
The policy also requires a report to be filed when a strip search is conducted. The strip search of Murphy was reported on a form that lists Washburn as the “search officer.”
The form for Murphy’s search did not name any supervisor or officer who authorized the search. And the fields for “finding/result of search,” the watch commander’s signature, badge number, date and time, and a space for comments all were left blank.
Murphy filed the pro se complaint in June 2017 claiming he was targeted for harassment because of a contentious relationship with the city and county, which included prior legal disputes.
In his deposition, Murphy identified Washburn as the officer who conducted the strip search. Washburn was not deposed, but he submitted an affidavit stating that he did not conduct the search, but only “recorded that the strip search took place as part of the booking process.”
“At no point in this litigation have defendants purported to identify a legitimate penological purpose for the strip search. Furthermore, there was evidence that Washburn’s actions were motivated by malice,” the Second Circuit wrote.
“A reasonable jury could readily conclude that Washburn was acting not to further legitimate penological concerns but purely out of vindictiveness,” the court wrote.
“We conclude that genuine issues of fact were presented as to whether Washburn was protected by qualified immunity,” the court wrote.
“The absence of reasonable suspicion for the search, Washburn’s failure to properly document the search or indicate which superior officer approved it … and his comments about Murphy sitting in ‘my jail’ for a while, despite bail having been posted, are all circumstances from which a reasonable jury could infer that Washburn was acting of his own volition and not pursuant to the orders of a superior,” the court wrote.
“To defeat summary judgment, Murphy was required to present evidence that a reasonable jury could find that Washburn’s actions shocked the conscience. Although it is a close call, we conclude that a reasonable jury could so find,” the court wrote.
“A jury could find that the strip search was not rationally related to any legitimate governmental purpose and that Washburn acted deliberately and vindictively,” the court wrote.
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