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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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