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Media Alerts - Harris v. Fischer
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March 16, 2016
  Harris v. Fischer
Headline: Second Circuit Reiterates that Inmates Retain a Limited Right to Bodily Privacy Under the Fourth Amendment, and Vacates Dismissal of Female Prisoner's Challenge to a Male Guard's Inspection of Her Genitalia

Area of Law: Prisoners' Rights

Issue Presented: Whether the district court erred in granting the defendant prison officials' motion for summary judgment when there were claims that the defendants violated the plaintiff's Fourth and Eighth Amendment rights by holding her down so that a male officer could inspect her genitalia.

Brief Summary: The plaintiff, Audra Lynn Harris, was incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, located in Bedford Hills, New York, for burglary and criminal contempt. Representing herself, she brought suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, asserting multiple claims relating to her treatment in prison. The particular focus of this appeal was her claim that, after she ripped open a mattress and tried to use the mattress's cotton to block prison officials from watching her while she changed clothes, she was subjected to a strip search in which a male officer inspected her genitalia to see if she was hiding cotton there. Although the district court dismissed this claim on summary judgment, the Second Circuit vacated, holding that there were material factual disputes and that the district court's analysis rested on an incomplete assessment of law, particularly the Fourth Amendment's protection of an inmate's right to bodily privacy.

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Extended Summary: Plaintiff, Audra Lynn Harris, alleges that while she was an inmate at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility ("the facility"), four corrections officers violated the Fourth and Eighth amendments when they infringed upon her bodily privacy. When Harris was incarcerated at the facility, she received a designation indicating that she showed symptoms of major/serious mental illness and needed care, treatment, and support from the mental health staff. In addition to a plethora of other grievances and allegations, Harris alleged an incident in which she was ordered into an observation room and directed to change into a smock. When she attempted to put the smock on over her clothing to get undressed, the officers knocked her down and pulled off her clothing, injuring her in the process. After the officers threw the smock back at Harris, she requested medical assistance, but the officers refused. Because of this incident, Harris pulled cotton out of her mattress and used water to paste it onto the windows of the observation room.

When the defendants, Officers Ella Anderson, Valerie Bryant, Robin Trotter, and Michael Miller, entered her room to remove the cotton from the windows, Miller asked Harris if she had any more cotton. When Harris said no, the three female officers, Anderson, Bryant, and Trotter, threw Harris on the ground, lifted her smock, and forcibly opened her legs to allow the male officer, Miller, to visually inspect her genitalia for additional cotton. In her opposition to the defendants' summary judgment motion, Harris provided affidavits and sworn testimony regarding this incident. The defendants provided no such proof to dispute the incident, but merely asserted in their briefs that it did not occur. The district court dismissed Harris's complaint in full, and Harris appealed.

Under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, the prohibition of unreasonable searches does not apply within the confines of a prison cell. However, inmates do have a limited right to bodily privacy under the Fourth Amendment. When an inmate brings a Fourth Amendment claim challenging an isolated search (as opposed to a prison regulation or policy), courts apply the standard set forth in the Supreme Court's Bell v. Wolfish decision. Under this framework, courts must do a case-specific balancing of the need for the search against the invasion of personal rights that the search entails. This balancing test requires courts to consider "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."

In applying this balancing test to these facts, the Second Circuit noted that a visual body cavity search, like the one conducted here, is particularly invasive, especially when conducted by the opposite sex. The court also noted that there was little evidence about the justification for the search, adding that there was no evidence that "possessing cotton, in one's genitalia or elsewhere, violates prison rules." The court emphasized that "inmates retain a limited right of bodily privacy under the Fourth Amendment," and vacated the district court's dismissal of this claim, remanding it for reconsideration in light of this discussion.

As to the plaintiff's Eighth Amendment claim that the search violated her right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, the Second Circuit concluded that Harris' allegations could lead a factfinder to decide that the defendants used force maliciously and sadistically. Thus, it similarly vacated the district court's dismissal of this claim and remanded it for reconsideration. It also suggested that on remand, the district court consider appointing pro bono counsel for Harris - who had been representing herself - and permitting the parties to take further discovery.

Panel: Chief Judge Katzmann; Circuit Judge Kearse; District Judge Schofield, sitting by designation

Argument Date: 01/15/2016

Argument Location: New York, NY

Date of Issued Opinion: 03/15/2016

Docket Number: 14-2957

Decided: Vacated and Remanded

Case Alert Author: Ryan Koleda

Counsel: Arun S. Subramanian, Susman Godfrey L.L.P., New York, N.Y., for Plaintiff-Appellant; David Lawrence III, Assistant Solicitor General (Barbara D. Underwood, Solicitor General, and Michael S. Belohlavek, Senior Counsel, on the brief), for Eric T. Schneiderman, Attorney General of the State of New York, New York, N.Y., for Defendants-Appellees

Author of Opinion: Per Curiam

Circuit: 2nd Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor:
Emily Gold Waldman

    Posted By: Emily Waldman @ 03/16/2016 09:38 PM     2nd Circuit  

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