Do jails overuse their right to conduct strip searches? Nine healthcare professionals who work in a Portsmouth, Virginia jail are suing because they were strip-searched at the beginning of their shift a year ago. The women argue that the jail violated their Fourth Amendment right to be protected against unreasonable searches.

But Sheriff Bill Watson, who ordered the searches, insists that he had probable cause. Watson said the women violated their contracts’ anti-suit clause. “At this point, I can’t trust them, so I can’t let them back into the building,” he said. When he learned about the lawsuit, he pulled the security clearances for the six women who still work at the jail, effectively ending their employment there and triggering a second lawsuit claiming retaliation. The women are now on paid administrative leave.

The women were long-time employees at the jail—two of them for more than 20 years—who say that the searches were invasive, humiliating, and illegal.

Accounts differ about what happened that morning. Angelene Cannon-Coleman, one of the women in the group, asked on what grounds she was being searched. “You haven’t done anything—it’s coming from the top,” was the answer. When she asked the lieutenant whether he or any of his staff were being strip-searched, he said no.

Sheriff Watson says, however, that all the jail contract employees, as well as all deputies, were searched when they reported for the first shift: “I’m bound by law and my oath of office to make it as safe a work environment as I can.” He noted that the employees had signed a contract stating that they were subject to searches, and he added that a sign posted in the jail reminds workers and visitors that they might be searched.

Watson says he had evidence that employees were smuggling contraband into the jail. The contraband problem disappeared after the searches were conducted.

Strip searches of jail employees are rarely done. Another Virginia Sheriff, Mike Wade of Henrico, said that without having specific evidence collected on one person, the practice would never be used.

Watson says, however, that pinpointing one person would leave him open to charges of unfairness. “You can’t single anybody out, or you’d be picking on them,” he said in a televised interview. He noted that one food service worker was known to have brought cigarettes and lighters into the jail. He did not comment on what he thought might have been concealed in the women’s body cavities.

The lawsuit follows on the heels of an April 2 Supreme Court ruling that jail officials do not need probable cause to do invasive searches of people arrested for minor offenses: The threat of contraband overrides the right to privacy. When the Court’s ruling was announced, some observers noted that employees are also a major source of contraband in correctional institutions. Could the invasive-search policy be expanded to include them? Sheriff Watson seems to have decided that the answer to that question is “yes.” What the courts think remains to be seen.

Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers.