In the matter of Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington, Civil Action No. 05-3619, the United States District Court, District of New Jersey, addressed the issue of strip searches of non-indictable offenders.
Plaintiffs consisted of a certified class to include all arrestees charged with non-indictable offenses, which were processed at Burlington County Jail and/or the Essex County Correctional Facility and were strip searched without a reasonable belief that they were concealing contraband, drugs, or weapons. Defendants were the Board of Chosen Freeholders of Burlington County, Burlington County Jail, Warden Juel Cole, Essex County Correctional Facility, Essex County Sheriff’s Department, and several John Does.
Plaintiffs sought summary judgment on the issue of whether Defendants violated Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights by their policy of strip searching non-indictable arrestees without reasonable suspicion. Plaintiffs also sought injunctive relief on behalf of the class against the correctional facilities’ strip search policies.
In response, Defendants also sought summary judgment as to whether the strip searches were constitutional. In addition, Defendants sought summary judgment on the following issues: (1) 11th Amendment immunity for the Board of Chosen Freeholders of Burlington County, Burlington County Jail, and Warden Cole in his official capacity; (2) qualified immunity for Warden Cole in his individual capacity; and (3) the dismissal of count five involving section 1983 municipality custom violations regarding Essex County.
The District Court held that blanket strip searches of non-indictable offenders, performed without reasonable suspicion for drugs, weapons or other contraband are unconstitutional. Specifically, the Court indicated that the search policies at Burlington and Essex County jails do not pass constitutional muster under the balancing test set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bell v. Wolfish. The Court also determined the justification for the blanket policy is not compelling, where it is based on general security concerns and health concerns, as nothing prohibits jail officials from searching non-indictable offenders, assuming they have reasonable suspicion to do so.
Based upon its finding that blanket strip searches of non-indictable offenders, performed without reasonable suspicion for drugs, weapons or other contraband, are unconstitutional, the Court granted Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment. As to a remedy, the Court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for injunctive relief on account of a lack of standing, since Plaintiffs have failed to show irreparable harm in that they are unlikely to be subjected to strip searches in the future.
Lastly, the Court denied Defendants’ Motion to dismiss in its entirety. The Court found Defendants’ arguments and factual averments are too scant to support a finding of 11th Amendment immunity and Plaintiffs’ factual allegations regarding municipal liability under section 1983 sufficiently complied with pleading requirements under Federal rules. Finally, the Court determined Warden Cole was not entitled to qualified immunity since a constitutional violation was present and Warden Cole ought to have been put on notice that the strip search policy was unconstitutional.