(HELENA) A lawsuit has been filed against Lewis and Clark County and the county sheriff’s office, claiming many people arrested for misdemeanors or traffic offenses have been subjected to illegal strip searches in the county detention center.
The case was filed Wednesday on behalf of William Scott Rogers, 38 other named plaintiffs and a number of unnamed people they believe may have been searched. The plaintiffs are represented by the Beebe & Flowers Law Firm and Doubek, Pyfer & Storrar, both of Helena. Attorney Greg Beebe provided the complaint in the case to MTN.
The suit claims detention center employees routinely require people booked into the center to remove all their clothes and submit to a visual inspection, and sometimes to a body cavity search. State law says people detained for misdemeanors and traffic offenses may only be strip searched if there is reasonable suspicion they are concealing a weapon, contraband or evidence of a crime.
Attorneys claim most of these searches are not based on reasonable suspicion. They say people like Rogers were patted down by arresting officers and on the booking floor. They argue, if officers had any suspicions the people were concealing something, they would include that information in their police reports. They claim “few, if any, such police reports exist.”
The plaintiffs’ attorneys estimate between half and three-quarters of the people brought to the detention center for misdemeanors or traffic offenses are subjected to strip searches. In addition to the 39 individual plaintiffs, they argue there are likely more than 2,500 other people who have been searched in the past three years.
The plaintiffs are asking for a preliminary injunction, to stop the detention center from continuing the routine strip searches while the case is heard, and a permanent injunction after that. They are also seeking compensatory and punitive damages.
Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher said Thursday that this case has been turned over to the Montana Association of Counties, which provides liability insurance for counties around the state. He said he expects MACo to prepare a defense against the suit.
MACo claims administrator David Payne confirmed Thursday the association had received information about the case, but said they could provide no further comment.