LONG BEACH, Calif. – The city of Long Beach has agreed to pay $85,000 to settle a federal lawsuit filed by a Muslim woman whose hijab was removed by a male officer following her arrest.
The settlement, approved Tuesday, concludes the legal battle undertaken by Kirsty Powell, an African American Muslim, reported the Los Angeles Times.
The lawsuit, which was filed in 2016, prompted the Long Beach Police Department to reverse its policy barring inmates from wearing religious head coverings.
“There really is no justification for taking off a person’s religious headgear,” said Powell’s attorney, Marwa Rifahie, who also works for the Greater Los Angeles Area Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The hijab has typically been viewed as a peripheral clothing item that could be used by an inmate to cause self-inflicted harm, much like belts and scarves. These items can also be used as weapons by desperate people. That is why they are collected at the time arrestees are booked; for the safety of all inmates.
Based upon this lawsuit and others, these items are rapidly becoming exemptions.
Powell’s case began in May 2015 when she and her husband were stopped by two officers because he was driving a “lowrider,” according to her attorney. She provided them with her identification information. When officers ran her name through their database, they discovered she had three misdemeanor warrants for petty theft, vehicle theft and resisting arrest, police said.
Powell was not aware that a warrant had been issued for a 2002 petty theft offense, her attorney said. The other warrants were issued after Powell’s sister had falsely used her name, according to the federal lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, physical contact with Powell should have been accomplished by a female officer. The arresting officers denied her request, and handcuffed her. She was then told she would have to remove her hijab.
Powell told the officers “that she wears a hijab in accordance with her religious practice and that it is her legal right to wear it,” the lawsuit said.
She was driven to the Long Beach Police Department, where she was booked and her hijab was removed in front of other male officers and inmates, according to the lawsuit.
Powell was detained for 24 hours without her hijab. Once she was allowed to leave, she was given a property bag containing it.
Shortly after her release, Powell reached out to CAIR, the Muslim civil rights organization, to go over her options.
In April 2016, she filed the lawsuit, alleging that her 1st Amendment rights had been violated. The lawsuit also contended that the city had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law protecting the religious rights of inmates.
In the months after the suit was filed, Long Beach Police Department overhauled its policy to allow inmates to wear their religious head coverings after they have been searched.
“After a thorough assessment of our policy, which included reviewing the procedures used by other law enforcement agencies in the region, it was determined an amendment to our policy was necessary,” the department said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times. “The Long Beach Police Department respects the religious rights and beliefs of all people, and continues to review policy, as law enforcement is an ever-evolving profession.”
Female officers are now required to remove a female inmate’s headscarf, “when necessary for officer safety,” outside the presence of male officers and inmates, said Monte Machit, Long Beach assistant city attorney.
The headscarf is then returned to the inmate.
“In our view, the removal of the hijab by a male officer, in the presence of other males, while consistent with the then-existing Long Beach Police Department policy, may have violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act,” Machit said. “The 9thCircuit [Court] has not specifically weighed in on whether removing the hijab actually violated [the law], but we believed that the existing policy was not consistent with the Act.”
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