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Media Alerts - Johnson v. District of Columbia
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November 15, 2013
  Johnson v. District of Columbia
Headline: D.C. Circuit finds neither the District of Columbia nor the Superior Court Marshal liable for suspicionless detainee strip searches

Area of Law: Fourth Amendment, Equal Protection, Qualified Immunity

Issue Presented: Whether the District of Columbia or the Superior Court Marshal can be held liable for performing suspicionless strip searches on arrestees awaiting presentment hearings at the District of Columbia Superior Court.

Brief Summary: Two female detainees were forced to endure strip searches while awaiting a presentment hearing at the District of Columbia Superior Court for non-violent, non-drug offenses. Charging that similarly situated male detainees were searched only upon reasonable suspicion, they brought a class action against both the District of Columbia and the United States Marshal alleging violations of the Fourth Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia granted summary judgment to both defendants. The district court dismissed the suit against District of Columbia on the grounds that the searches were performed by federal officials acting under color of federal law. Turning to the Marshal, the court found he was entitled to qualified immunity because any constitutional rights he might have violated were not clearly established at the time of the violation.

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed. The court rejected the detainees' argument that the District of Columbia was liable under 42 U.S.C. ยง1983 because the Superior Court, from which the Marshal derived his authority, acted as a state court. Noting that the Marshal derived his authority from the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, was appointed and confirmed through a federal process, and at all times could have been removed by the President, the court concluded that the Marshal was a federal official acting under color of federal law. The court also rejected the detainees' alternative argument that the District was deliberately indifferent to the Marshal's unconstitutional conduct, finding that, under federal law, the District of Columbia lacked the discretion to decide not to send arrestees to the Marshal.

The court likewise found no merit to the detainees' Bivens claims against Marshal Dillard. In order to prevail, the detainees had to show (1) that an official violated a constitutional right and (2) that the right was clearly established at the time of the violation. In Bame v. Dillard, 637 F.3d 380, 384 (D.C. Cir. 2011), a case involving a similar question against the same defendant, the D.C. Circuit had held that any Fourth Amendment right Dillard might have violated was not clearly established at the time. Finding Bame indistinguishable from the present claim, the D.C. Circuit held Marshal Dillard is entitled to qualified immunity. Turning to the Equal Protection claim, the court found that the detainees could not make the requisite showing under Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), that Dillard intended to discriminate against women arrestees. Judge Rogers concurred in part and in the judgment. She noted that, per her dissent in Bame, she would have held that the indiscriminate strip searching in the absence of reasonable suspicion violated the Fourth Amendment. However, she acknowledged that Bame was the law of the circuit and compelled the conclusion that Dillard was entitled to qualified immunity.

For the full text of this opinion, please visit

Panel: Rogers, Tatel, and Griffith.

Argument Date: September 13, 2013

Date of Issued Opinion: November 15, 2013

Docket Number: 11-5115

Decided: Affirmed.

Case Alert Author: Joseph T. Maher, Jr.

Counsel: William Charles Cole Claiborne III, Barrett S. Litt, and Paul J. Estuar for appellants. Robin M. Meriweather, Ronald C. Machen, Jr., R. Craig Lawrence, W. Mark Nebeker, Stacy L. Anderson, Irvin B. Nathan, Todd S. Kim, and Donna M. Murasky for appellees.

Author of Opinion: Tatel

Concurrence by: Rogers

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Elizabeth Beske, Ripple Weistling

    Posted By: Ripple Weistling @ 11/15/2013 03:33 PM     DC Circuit  

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