Strip Searches Don't Violate 4th Amendment, D.C. Circuit Rules

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on April 13, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The D.C. Circuit has ruled that persons arrested for non-violent, non-drug-related misdemeanors may be subject to strip searches even without a showing of reasonable suspicion.

In other words, it's constitutional in D.C. to strip search a person who has been hauled in for trespassing.

The plaintiffs in Bame v. Dillard were arrested during the 2002 IMF and World Bank protests. Before being strip searched, they were hauled into a Superior Court holding facility where they went through metal detectors and pat downs.

Some of the arrestees were fined for "incommodating" traffic, and others for failing to obey officers. Both are misdemeanors.

Normally, a search of a person's body requires that an officer have a reasonable suspicion that the person is concealing a weapon or contraband in the area that he wishes to search. This means that there must be specific facts or circumstances that justify the search.

Arguably, this requirement should apply to courthouse holding cells and strip searches. However, the D.C. Circuit has decided that it does not.

In Bell v. Wolfish, the Supreme Court found that pre-trial detainees may be subject to reasonable strip searches as determined by balancing "the scope of the particular intrusion, the manner in which it is conducted, the justification for initiating it, and the place in which it is conducted."

Applying this test to the facts at hand, the court found that, regardless of charges, persons detained in courthouse holding cells may be strip searched because of potential security dangers and a persistent contraband smuggling problem.

Expect this case to come up in arguments in front of the Supreme Court later this fall--they have agreed to hear a similar case of a man who was subject to two strip searches after being arrested for failing to pay a traffic fine.

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