Okanogan County Pays $35,000 for Illegal Strip Search of Juvenile

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

Okanogan County has paid a settlement of $35,000 to a young woman for subjecting her to an illegal strip search at the county's juvenile detention facility in 1999. The young woman was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. The County changed its strip search policy for juveniles shortly after the ACLU initially contacted officials about the matter.

"The strip search was degrading and absolutely unnecessary, and the policy allowing it was unconstitutional. We are glad the county will no longer conduct suspicionless strip searches of juveniles arrested for minor offenses," said attorney Trilby Dorn of the firm Tousley Brain Stephens. Dorn and attorneys Katherine Felton and Ward Morrison of Riddell Williams P.S. handled the case for the ACLU.

The case stemmed from an incident in November 1999, when a guard at the Okanogan County juvenile detention facility strip-searched the then- 15-year-old girl after she had been taken into custody for failing to appear at a truancy hearing, a civil matter. Authorities had no reason to believe that she was concealing weapons or contraband. The search was conducted in a room containing a large window that looked out to a building entrance where people congregated, as well as before an open door, making it possible for other juveniles and detention staff to see the search in progress.

Both the state and federal constitutions prohibit jail officials from implementing blanket strip search policies. The courts consistently have held for the last 20 years that when an individual is charged with a minor offense, jail officials may conduct a strip search only if they have reason to suspect that the person is concealing a weapon or other contraband. In addition, state law prohibits strip searches of individuals who are booked into detention facilities unless the person has been arrested for a violent offense or drug offense, or if there is reasonable suspicion that the arrestee is concealing weapons or other contraband. Restrictions on strip searches in jails and juvenile facilities were adopted by the Washington Legislature in 1983 at the urging of the ACLU.

The American Civil Liberties Union is a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization devoted to protecting the civil liberties of all Americans and extending them to groups that that have traditionally been denied their rights.