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Media Alerts - T.S. v. Doe - Sixth Circuit
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March 18, 2014
  T.S. v. Doe - Sixth Circuit
Headline: A juvenile-detention center may implement a generally applicable, suspicionless strip-search policy.

Area of Law: Constitutional Law; Fourth Amendment

Issue Presented: May government officials invoking qualified immunity benefit from a post-arrest Supreme Court decision that validated the government's complained-of procedure?

Brief Summary: After being arrested for underage drinking, two juveniles were brought to a detention center where they were strip-searched. The juveniles sued, arguing that strip searches for minor offenses are not allowed unless reasonable suspicion is present. The district court denied the defendants qualified immunity under both federal and Kentucky law.

The Sixth Circuit held that plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of demonstrating that, at the time the strip search occurred, a reasonable official would have known that a suspicionless strip search of a juvenile during intake violated the Fourth Amendment. But the court agreed with the district court that the officials who strip-searched the juveniles were conducting "ministerial" acts and thus were not protected by qualified official immunity under Kentucky law.

Significance: For the purpose of establishing that an official has acted in objective good faith, the most recent pronouncement of the Supreme Court on the issue is relevant, even if it was decided after the disputed acts occurred.

Extended Summary: Plaintiffs, two juveniles, were arrested for underage drinking and were transferred to a juvenile-detention center. During intake, plaintiffs were strip-searched, and their bodies were inspected for general condition and markings.

Plaintiffs, through their parents, sued the officials who strip-searched them, the officials' supervisors, and the detention-center administrators. They claimed that the search violated their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches. Plaintiffs argued that the strip searches were unreasonable because they had been arrested for a minor offense that did not warrant such a search.

Defendants argued that their actions were protected under the qualified-immunity doctrine. The district court held that both adults and juveniles have the right to be free from unreasonable strip searches, and it denied immunity to defendants under both federal and Kentucky law.

The Sixth Circuit reversed in part and affirmed in part. Once defendants raised a qualified-immunity defense, the burden shifted to plaintiffs to prove that (1) the officials' conduct violated a constitutional or statutory right, and (2) that this right was so clearly established at the time of the offense that the officials understood that their actions were violating plaintiffs' constitutional rights.

Plaintiffs relied on Masters v. Crouch, 872 F.2d 1248 (6th Cir. 1989), which prohibited suspicionless strip searches of adult detainees who committed a minor offense. The Sixth Circuit noted, however, that Masters conflicts with the Supreme Court's decision in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington, 132 S. Ct. 1510 (2012), which held that officials may conduct suspicionless strip searches of pretrial detainees, regardless of the severity of their offense, during their initial entry into the general population of a prison. The Sixth Circuit held, therefore, that Masters was abrogated.

Plaintiffs argued that Florence was not controlling because it was decided three years after their arrests. But the Sixth Circuit observed that when the arrest occurred, there was already an extensive body of caselaw supporting a reasonable official's good-faith belief that strip searches for minor offenses were not prohibited. Thus, the court reversed the district court's decision and held that defendants were entitled to qualified immunity against plaintiffs' federal constitutional claims.

The court also briefly noted that other circuits' decisions had uniformly affirmed the reasonableness of suspicionless strip searches of juveniles, observing that the state's status in loco parentis over juveniles created an enhanced responsibility to protect detained juveniles from weapons and other contraband.

But the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court's holding that defendants were not entitled to qualified official immunity under Kentucky law. The court noted that this immunity is available for discretionary, but not ministerial, acts. Because the officials acted under the orders of their supervisors, their acts were ministerial and thus not protected under qualified official immunity.

Link to Full Opinion:

Panel: Boggs and Donald, Circuit Court Judges; and Stamp, District Judge, sitting by designation.

Argument: June 12, 2013

Date of Issued Opinion: February 5, 2014

Docket Number: 12-5724

Decided: Reversed in part, affirmed in part.

Case Alert Author: Meri Kligman

Counsel: Roger G. Wright, Lexington, Kentucky, for Appellants. Joe F. Childers, JOE F. CHILDERS & ASSOCIATES, Lexington, Kentucky, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Roger G. Wright, Lexington, Kentucky, for Appellants. Joe F. Childers, JOE F. CHILDERS & ASSOCIATES, Lexington, Kentucky, for Appellees. Marsha Levick, JUVENILE LAW CENTER, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for Amici Curiae.

Author of Opinion: Circuit Court Judge Boggs

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Kalinowski

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 03/18/2014 02:58 PM     6th Circuit  

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