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Judge issues lengthy order in strip-search case

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A U.S. District Court judge has issued a 91-page order in an "elaborate and expensive litigation" that began after three teenagers were stopped because their car had a broken license plate light.

After years of litigation and several orders to compel discovery, Chief Judge David Hamilton released the lengthy order Aug. 21 in Lessley, Rhodehamel, and Messer v. City of Madison, Ind., et al., No. 4:07-CV-136. The order - which included an index on each issue - ruled on the summary judgment and other pending motions filed by each side.

Kristy L. Lessley, Kara J. Rhodehamel, and Kayla M. Messer filed suit against the city of Madison, Ind., several Madison police officers, and other city officials after their car was searched, and they were patted down for drugs and eventually stripped searched in a fire station because police believed they possessed marijuana. The three were stopped for the broken license plate light, and officer Jonathon Simpson and Sgt. James Royce smelled marijuana on Kristy Lessley. The officers claim the women consented to some search of the car, their person, and the eventual strip searches at a fire station. The women, who were 18- and 19-years-old at the time, claim they weren't read their rights and did not consent.

Female officer Mika Season Jackson was called to search the women at a nearby fire station; she found marijuana in Lessley's underwear. The other two were never arrested, and the charges against Lessley were eventually dropped. The three filed their federal and state claims several months later.

On Royce's motion for summary judgment, the chief judge ruled in his favor on the seizure claims, the search of the car, and the individual liability for state law torts. Royce had probable cause to stop the car because of the broken light and had probable cause to search the car when he smelled marijuana. The pat-down of Lessley was constitutional because he smelled marijuana on her, but the pat-downs of Messer and Rhodehamel, and the strip searches of all three weren't constitutional.

"Royce has identified no case in this district, any circuit, or from the Supreme Court where a court approved a warrantless strip-search of an individual who was not under arrest, at an international border, or at a school," wrote Chief Judge Hamilton.

Although Indiana courts haven't addressed the question of whether officers have probable cause to search vehicle occupants to find drugs based on the smell of marijuana and rolling papers, that fact can't protect a police officer from section 1983 liability, wrote the chief judge.

The motions for summary judgment filed by the other officers involved were granted on the same claims as were granted for Royce and denied on the claims regarding the pat down of Messer and Rhodehamel and the strip searches.

Even though the police officers aren't individually liable for the plaintiffs' state law claims, the City of Madison was found liable as a municipality.

"The question is close on the current record of evidence, but the court concludes that plaintiffs have offered enough evidence to permit a reasonable jury to conclude that the City of Madison's failure to take appropriate corrective action in response to repeated complaints of Royce's mistreatment of civilians, particularly women, could have amounted to an unconstitutional custom," wrote Chief Judge Hamilton.

While no Indiana state courts have addressed the application of Indiana Code Section 34-13-3-3(8) to claims an officer assaulted or battered someone through a search and assaulted someone by making inappropriate sexual comments, the District Court ruled a municipality does not have immunity for a plaintiff's assault and battery claims stemming from allegations of excessive police force.

Turning to the plaintiffs' motions for summary judgment that include on the strip-search claims and qualified immunity, the District Court denied their motions except for their motion for summary judgment on the timeliness of their tort claim notices.

Chief Judge Hamilton also granted in part and denied in part the plaintiffs' motion to allow further summary judgment briefing and to re-open discovery; denied the plaintiffs' motion to amend their complaint to include the city's insurer; denied the appeal of the magistrate judge's order unsealing documents; sustained the magistrate judge's order granting the motion to compel; and denied the motion to strike the plaintiffs' reply to the defendants' appeal on the motion to compel.

Chief Judge Hamilton noted under Rule 37, the District Court will also order the responsible defendants to pay as a sanction the plaintiffs' reasonable attorneys' fees and costs for reasonably necessary follow-up depositions.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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