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Dixon v. Santiago

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 29, 2015

JAMES DIXON, Plaintiff,
v.
WARDEN SANTIAGO, et al., Defendants.

INITIAL REVIEW ORDER PURSUANT TO 28 U.S.C. § 1915A

Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

Plaintiff James Dixon is a prisoner in the custody of the Connecticut Department of Correction (DOC) at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Uncasville, Connecticut. He has filed a complaint pro se and in forma pauperis under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He contends that his constitutional rights were violated when he was subjected to three strip searches in the presence or view of other inmates and correctional officers who were not involved in the search. Based on my initial review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, I conclude that plaintiffs claim for money damages should be dismissed on qualified immunity grounds but that plaintiffs claim for declaratory and injunctive relief should proceed.

Background

Plaintiff names seven defendants in their individual and official capacities: Warden Santiago, Deputy Warden Martin, Lieutenant Bellamare, Captain Ogando and Correctional Officers John Doe #1, #2 and #3. Plaintiff contends that Bellamare and the Doe defendants subjected him to strip searches at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in the view of other inmates and that defendants Santiago and Martin failed to address his complaints about these searches. Plaintiff principally seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to require proper training of correctional staff, as well as compensatory damages of $100, 000 and punitive damages of $25, 000 from each of the defendants. The following allegations from plaintiff's amended complaint are accepted as true for purposes of the Court's initial review.

The First Strip Search. On August 27, 2015, during an emergency lock-down of the correctional facility, plaintiff was ordered to the gym with other inmates while the top tier cells were being searched. All of the inmates were strip searched. Plaintiff was searched in an area without dividers or screen. The search was visible by the other inmates being searched as well as by other correctional officers or inmates passing large windows in the area or waiting on the bleachers in the gym. Defendant Bellamare was supervising the strip searches, which were recorded on wall-mounted cameras. After the search, plaintiff was ordered to the bleacher area where he could view other inmates being strip searched.

After another inmate complained to defendant Deputy Warden Martin, defendant Martin stated that when he was in the military, he showered in front of other men. Defendant Martin also said that the searches in the gym would not occur again. No correctional officers were reprimanded for this incident.

The Second Strip Search. Early in the morning of September 10, 2015, as plaintiff was being prepared for a court transport trip, he was instructed to wait while two inmates were strip searched, one in the “strip room” and one in the open area of the “group room” where other correctional officers also were conducting searches. Plaintiff was directed to the open area, and he was strip searched in view of staff and other inmates. Inmates and staff were able to see into the group room through windows on two walls.

Plaintiff complained about this search to defendant Ogando. Although defendant Ogando stated that they would address the matter with his supervisors and assured plaintiff that no further searches of this type would occur, plaintiff has not received a formal response. Plaintiff requested that video of the hallway be preserved. He received no response to this request.

The Third Strip Search. On November 3, 2015, plaintiff was ordered to the admitting and processing area for another court transport trip. Again, he was strip searched in the group room in front of the windows and in clear view of other inmates and correctional officers in the room. Plaintiff informed defendants Martin and Ogando of the improper search and continued violation of his rights. He was assured again that changes would be made.

Discussion

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a), the Court must review prisoner civil complaints and dismiss any portion of the complaint that is frivolous or malicious, that fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or that seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. The Court must accept as true all factual matters alleged in a complaint, although a complaint may not survive unless its factual recitations state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. See, e.g., Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Mastafa v. Chevron Corp., 770 F.3d 170, 177 (2d Cir. 2014) (same). It is well-established that “pro se complaints 'must be construed liberally and interpreted to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest.'” Sykes v. Bank of Am., 723 F.3d 399, 403 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Triestman v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 474 (2d Cir. 2006)); see also Tracy v. Freshwater, 623 F.3d 90, 101-02 (2d Cir. 2010) (discussing special rules of solicitude for pro se litigants).

Not every violation of the Constitution may justify an award of money damages against a governmental official. That is because the doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials “from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982); see also Carroll v. Carman, 135 S.Ct. 348, 351 (2014). As the Supreme Court has recently explained, “a defendant cannot be said to have violated a clearly established right unless the right's contours were sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in the defendant's shoes would have understood that he was violating it.” Plumhoff v. Richard, 134 S.Ct. 2012, 2023 (2014).

Here, plaintiff contends that he was subjected to strip searches in violation of his constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, and to his rights to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. In addressing these claims, I start from the proposition that prison officials have a compelling interest in the detection of contraband and that strip searches may be justified by legitimate security and penological objectives. See, e.g., Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington, 132 S.Ct. 1510, 1515-17 (2012). And the complaint makes clear that there were legitimate reasons that prompted each of the three strip searches at issue. The first search was in the context of an emergency lockdown, and the second two searches were in conjunction with plaintiffs departure from the facility for court transport trips. There is no allegation that the searches themselves were conducted for improper or prurient reasons.

Rather than contesting the basis for the strip searches, plaintiff objects to the fact that they were done in a manner that allowed him to be viewed by a video camera, viewed by other inmates, and viewed by correctional officers who were not involved with the strip search process. Numerous district courts in this Circuit have concluded that it does not violate the Constitution for an inmate to be subject to a strip search within the view of other correctional officers or inmates who are not themselves involved in the search. See, e.g., Smith v. City of New York, No. 2015 WL 3929621, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. June 17, 2015); Israel v. City of New York, 2012 WL 4762082, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. 2012); Miller v. Bailey, 2008 WL 1787692, at *9 (E.D.N.Y. Apr. 17, 2008). In light of this precedent, it cannot be said that ...


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