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Supreme Court upholds liability judgment in cross-gender inmate search

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
The U.S. Supreme Court let stand a decision that said the "strip search, as conducted in this case, was unreasonable."
The U.S. Supreme Court let stand a decision that said the "strip search, as conducted in this case, was unreasonable."
  • Ruling upholds 9th Circuit Court's ruling against Maricopa County, Arizona
  • Case involved a nonemergency search of inmate by a female detention officer cadet
  • Inmate testified the cadet squeezed and kneaded his genitals and buttocks
  • A trial court initially had dismissed the claims

Washington (CNN) -- An Arizona inmate received a U.S. Supreme Court victory Monday in a civil rights lawsuit he filed against county jail officials after a female cadet conducted a search of the man's genital areas and buttocks.

The justices let stand without comment an appeals court ruling holding officials in Maricopa County liable for damages.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in January used tough language to criticize local correctional officers.

"The indignity of the non-emergency strip search conducted by an unidentified female cadet was compounded by the fact that there were onlookers, at least one of whom videotaped the humiliating event," wrote the en banc panel of 11 judges. "For these reasons, we conclude that the cross-gender strip search, as conducted in this case, was unreasonable."

Charles Byrd had been arrested in 2004 and held as a pretrial detainee at a minimum-security jail in Phoenix. Corrections officers had ordered a nonemergency search of the entire housing unit, where some 90 inmates were detained. Officials had justified the search because of recent fights and suspicions of contraband in the facility.

The prisoners were ordered to remove all their clothes except their state-issued pink boxer shorts. Byrd was among a group of four inmates taken to a separate room and searched by cadets from the detention officer training academy. Only cadets conducted those searches, not detention officers, even though 10 to 15 uniformed officers were present in the room.

Byrd claims the woman cadet -- wearing latex gloves -- conducted a search that lasted about a minute and included squeezing and kneading his private areas. The cadet testified the search lasted 10 to 20 seconds and was conducted in accordance with accepted procedures. The inmate filed a grievance and later a lawsuit, claiming his due process rights and his right against unreasonable searches were violated.

Under the county's "contraband control policy," male inmates may be frisked by either male or female officers, but female inmates may only be searched by female officers. The county argued that the action taken with Byrd was not a strip search because his shorts were not removed, and that it prohibits cross-gender strip searches. But the appeals court concluded Byrd was subjected to a strip search.

A trial court jury had initially dismissed the claims.

The majority of the appeals court had concluded it was "recognizing the privacy interest of inmates in their personal dignity" to be free from searches by someone from the opposite sex.

A variety of civil rights and prisoner rights groups had backed Byrd.

The case is Maricopa County Sheriff's Department v. Byrd (10-1201).