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Gwiazdowski v. County of Chester

October 19, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Legrome D. Davis, J



Plaintiff Mary Gwiazdowski commenced this class action against Defendant Chester County following incidents that occurred while Plaintiff was detained at Chester County Prison in West Chester, Pennsylvania ("Chester Prison") on September 13, 2007, for misdemeanor charges of driving under the influence ("DUI") and traffic violations. Plaintiff claims that she and others similarly situated were subjected to unconstitutional strip searches upon entry into Chester Prison. Defendant Chester County is "responsible for enacting uniform policies and overseeing the County Jail."*fn1 (Compl. ¶ 7.)

A. Facts Relating to Plaintiff's Detention and Alleged Strip Searches

Plaintiff was transferred to Chester Prison on September 13, 2007 following a brief detention at Riverside Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania ("Riverside") for misdemeanor and summary charges of DUI, fleeing and reckless driving. (Compl. ¶ 28.) Upon entry to Chester Prison, Plaintiff proceeded through intake questioning and paperwork and was pat down by a correctional officer. (Pl.'s Mot. Certify Class, Ex. A Pl.'s Dep. 85:10-16, Mar. 12, 2009.) Plaintiff alleges that she was then subjected to two strip searches, a delousing spray procedure and a cavity search. (Hr'g Tr. 8:9, Aug. 5, 2009.)

Plaintiff was taken to a showering area where she was required to submit to Defendant's delousing procedure, during which Plaintiff removed all of her clothing, including undergarments, and an inspection officer, Donna Jennings ("Jennings"), sprayed Plaintiff with Lysol. (Pl.'s Dep. 86:2-3; Hr'g Tr. 15:22.) When Plaintiff undressed, Jennings noticed bruises on Plaintiff's body, and Plaintiff explained that she was assaulted by inmates at Riverside. (Pl.'s Dep. 12:7-14; Def.'s Resp., Ex. 3 Chester County Prison Incident Report 2 (hereinafter "Incident Report").)*fn2 According to Plaintiff, Jennings first sprayed her hair, then her underarms, and then her "private areas." (Pl.'s Dep. 35:15-16, 27:20.) Before beginning the process, Jennings advised Plaintiff to "hold [her] breath because of the spray being so cold." (Id. at 61:4.) Plaintiff recalled that she asked Jennings, "how come do I need to get sprayed down," and Jennings replied, "[b]ecause of lice and other things, that it's like a disinfectant for people so you don't spread stuff." (Id. at 62:25.) Following the delousing procedure, Plaintiff showered and was then taken to a holding cell. (Id. at 28:24, 29:1.)

Plaintiff asserts that while she was being deloused, she was also strip searched.*fn3 (Compl. ¶ 1.) Jennings never touched Plaintiff but Plaintiff alleged that she was "forced to bend over and spread the lobes of her buttocks." (Id. at ¶ 28.) When asked to describe "specifically where they search[ed] you when you're completely nude," Plaintiff responded, "[t]hey just mainly[,] they are looking at you. They just check you and, like, you just have to spread open to make sure there's nothing there . . . Your privates, under your arms and hair. And your mouth." (Pl.'s Dep. 87:6-16.) However, both Officer Jennings and Major D. Scott Graham, an officer at Chester Prison, stated that Plaintiff was not strip searched. (Pl.'s Mot. Certify Class, Ex. D Dep. of Donna Jennings 82:6, March 4, 2009; Id. at Ex. E Dep. of Major D. Scott Graham 130:2, March 3, 2009.) Jennings also wrote in the Incident Report, "[A]t no time is a female asked to squat and cough or spread their butt cheeks during an intake process." (Incident Report 3.)

B. Defendant's Policies and Procedures

Defendant admits to having a uniform delousing policy. Defendant has a written policy of "delous[ing] every new committal providing the individual is not pregnant or has open sores."*fn4

(Pl.'s Mot. Certify Class, Ex. B Chester County Prison, Policies and Procedures: Delousing of New Commitments.)*fn5 The purpose of the policy is to "reduce the chances of lice, crabs and other infectious things to be introduced to the facility." (Id.) After completing the intake paperwork, an inmate is taken to the "appropriate shower area" for the delousing procedure. (Id. at ¶ 1.) The inmate must remove his/her clothes and place them in the clothing bag assigned to him/her. (Graham Dep. 42:24.) An identification officer "will perform a visual inspection of the inmate's body to ensure there are no open wounds or sores," (Policies and Procedures: Delousing of New Commitments ¶ 3) and will also ask the inmate if he/she has any open wounds or sores, (Graham Dep. 43:2-3). If the officer detects no open wounds or sores, the inmate is "directed to close his/her eyes and hold up his/her arms," (Graham Dep. 115:12-14,) and the officer proceeds to spray the inmate's entire body, both the back and front of the body, with Lysol. (Hr'g Tr. 15:22.) The officer sprays the inmate's "private part areas" during this procedure because "that's where body lice, crabs, that's where they harvest." (Jennings Dep. 67:3.) When the spraying is complete, the inmate is directed to shower and dress in the issued inmate clothing. (Policies and Procedures: Delousing of New Commitments ¶ 8.)

Plaintiff also alleges that Defendant has a "written and/or de facto policy, custom or practice" of conducting suspicionless visual cavity searches of all detainees. (Compl. ¶ 25.) Plaintiff interviewed a former identification officer of Chester Prison, Benjamin Herstein, who stated that every inmate is "strip-searched and then deloused." (Pl. Mot. Certify Class, Ex. C Benjamin Herstein Interview 2, Mar. 6, 2009.) Herstein described the search as a "visual" search, where the officer wants the detainee to "shake their hair out . . . bend over, cough, make sure there's nothing up in the, I guess, anal cavity. Lift their scrotum . . . Check their ears, check their mouth." (Id. at 3.) When asked whether searching was Chester Prison's policy, however, Herstein explained that he was "never given any, you know, I.D. policies or book saying 'this is what has to be followed,'" and "really [didn't] know if it was protocol." (Id. at 3.) Herstein followed what was told to him by his training officer. (Id. at 3.)

Defendant denies that it has a blanket visual strip search policy, and provides a copy of its policies and procedures for pat-downs and searches in support thereof. (Def. Resp., Ex. 2

Policies and Procedures: Inmate Pat-Down and Strip Search Protocol.) Specifically, the document describes searches of persons detained on misdemeanor charges as follows:

"No person . . . arrested on a misdemeanor charge or a felony charge not involving violence, weapons or controlled substance, shall be subjected to a strip search unless the Chester County Prison Employee has a reasonable belief that the person is concealing a controlled substance or weapon . . .." (Id. at ¶ 5.) This policy was set forth in writing for the first time on March 10, 2008, but Defendant alleges that the same policy was in place prior to March 2008. (Def. Resp. 4-5.) Jennings and Grahams' depositions further support this position. Jennings explained that a detainee proceeding through the intake process is strip searched "only if it is approved through a supervisor with the fact that contraband could be placed in an area that cannot be seen with clothing on." (Jennings Dep. 59:3.) Similarly, Graham stated that there were only two instances in which a detainee would be strip searched during intake: if the detainee attempted to escape or was suspected of having weapons on him during transport, or if contraband was found during the initial pat down search. (Graham Dep. 44:15, 45:4.)

C. Plaintiff's Class Action Allegations

Plaintiff alleges that the delousing and strip search procedures described in the preceding paragraphs were conducted pursuant to Defendant's "written and/or de facto polic[ies], custom[s] or practice[s]" of"strip searching all individuals placed into the custody of the Jail . . . without any requirement of reasonable suspicion, or indeed suspicion of any sort." (Compl. ¶ 25.) According to Plaintiff, "[p]ursuant to [these] written and/or de facto polic[ies], each member of the Class, including every named Plaintiff, was the victim of a routine strip search upon their entry into the Chester County Prison System." (Id. at ¶ 26.)

D. Procedural History

Plaintiff commenced this action on September 12, 2008 against Defendant on behalf of herself and a "class of thousands of others" who were allegedly unconstitutionally strip searched during intake at Chester Prison pursuant to Defendant's policies. Plaintiff seeks monetary damages for herself and for each member of the proposed class for violations of 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983, a declaration that Defendant's policies are unconstitutional, and preliminary and permanent injunctions enjoining Defendant from engaging in ...

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