After our lawsuit challenging the strip search of a prison visitor, the Massachusetts Department of Correction changes its regulations 

Our firm has two goals in mind whenever we bring a civil rights lawsuit. We work to get our clients compensated for injuries caused by police officers or other government officials. We also try to use our lawsuits as a tool to bring about positive changes in how police departments and other agencies operate. One of our recent cases accomplished both of these goals. In response to our lawsuit challenging the strip search of a prison visitor, the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) is changing its regulations to limit the circumstances in which prison officials can strip search a prison visitor.

Here’s how it happened. In 2012, we filed a lawsuit for a woman who was illegally strip searched after visiting a friend at a state prison. We alleged that a group of prison guards brought our client to a room and threatened that she would not be allowed to leave until she agreed to be strip searched. They claimed they had received an anonymous tip that a female visitor would try to smuggle drugs to the prisoner. Our client did not have any drugs and did not want to be strip searched. Finally she gave in to their pressure; the guards claimed she had consented to the strip search, making it legal.

The fact that the guards were trained that they only needed a visitor’s consent for a strip search was troubling. While this was consistent with the DOC policy, it was not constitutional. The Fourth Amendment permits prison officials to strip search a visitor only when they have reasonable suspicion that the particular visitor is hiding contraband on his or her body.

The DOC argued the guards acted lawfully because they had the client’s consent and did not need reasonable suspicion for the search. We argued that an anonymous tip about a female visitor (not necessarily our client) did not justify putting someone through the humiliating experience of a being strip searched. In May 2014, Judge Saylor in the federal District Court of Massachusetts ruled that prison guards need reasonable suspicion and it cannot be based only on anonymous tips; the guards must independently corroborate those tips to develop reasonable suspicion.

The DOC settled our case after the court issued its decision. Last week, we learned that the court’s decision in our case is having a bigger impact. The DOC has announced that it will revise its regulations regarding visitor strip searches. The new regulations clarify that prison officials must have reasonable suspicion, and that anonymous tips must be corroborated with actual facts to create reasonable suspicion. This change is a direct response to our case.

We are glad to see that our case has brought about a positive change in prison policy. It may well be that state law requires a higher standard—probable cause—before prison officials can legally strip search a visitor. This is because the Supreme Judicial Court has said that our state Constitution requires this higher standard for strip searches. Our case was brought under the U.S. Constitution.  

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend