CA6: Jail group strip searches invasive, but penologically justified; ptf must answer defs’ proffered justification

While group strip searches at a jail are invasive, there is a penological justification offered that plaintiff doesn’t answer. There is no clearly established law that these are unreasonable. “The issue we face is whether periodically conducting group strip searches when the number of jail inmates waiting to be processed makes individual searches imprudent constitutes a violation of clearly established Fourth Amendment law. Under the facts of this case, we answer that question ‘no’ and therefore hold that the jail official who conducted the group searches, defendant Terri Graham, is entitled to qualified immunity.” Sumpter v. Wayne County, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 15649 (6th Cir. Aug. 18, 2017):

For these reasons, and following the Supreme Court’s repeated admonitions in Bell and Florence, we accord considerable deference to defendants’ assertion that they conducted group strip searches when the high volume of inmates and concomitant effect of delays on inmate health and safety demanded it. See Florence, 566 U.S. at 326 (“[C]orrectional officials … must have substantial discretion to devise reasonable solutions to the problems they face.”); Bell, 441 U.S. at 548 (“[C]ourts should ordinarily defer to their expert judgment in such matters.”).

To summarize, on one hand, the group strip searches plaintiff endured in the Registry were especially intrusive; on the other hand, defendants have asserted a legitimate penological justification for periodically conducting the searches. Typically, we would proceed to balance the nature of the intrusion against the [*19] penological justification to determine whether the searches were unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. However, we need not go that far in order to determine that Graham is entitled to qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity protects a constitutional tortfeasor from personal liability unless the contours of the constitutional right she violated “were sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in the defendant’s shoes would have understood that he was violating it.” Plumhoff v. Rickard, 134 S. Ct. 2012, 2023 (2014). The dispositive inquiry, “undertaken in light of the specific context of the case, [and] not as a broad general proposition,” is “whether the violative nature of particular conduct is clearly established.” Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S. Ct. 305, 308 (2015) (per curiam) (first quoting Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 198 (2004) (per curiam) and then Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 742 (2011)).

Nowhere is that specificity as important as in the Fourth Amendment context, where, under the governing ad-hoc interest-balancing test, “[i]t is sometimes difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine … will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts.” Id. at 308 (quoting Saucier, 533 U.S. at 205). Because “case-by-case, incremental decisionmaking of balancing tests … infrequently will provide the ‘fair notice’ that qualified-immunity precedent requires,” Evans-Marshall v. Bd. of Educ. of Tipp City Exempted Vill. Sch. Dist., 428 F.3d 223, 234-35 (6th Cir. 2005), “[c]ourts generally accord public officials wide latitude (for qualified-immunity purposes) when the constitutionality of their acts comes down to the subtleties of interest balancing[.]” Citizens in Charge, Inc. v. Husted, 810 F.3d 437, 443 (6th Cir. 2016). Thus, it is imperative that plaintiff rely on a decision that “squarely governs” the outcome of the case. See Brosseau, 543 U.S. at 201. That she cannot do.

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