Legislating common sense on the use of strip-searches

March 25, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

They were going to come and tell their stories to a panel of state senators - how they were stopped by police for routine traffic infractions, handcuffed, strip-searched at the state-run booking center and then set free, their charges never pursued.

In one case, a Baltimore police officer didn't even bother to show up for trial.

But they couldn't face the crowded Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee room in Annapolis, the television cameras or the lawmakers.

"All of them are too embarrassed and too humiliated to come," said Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat.

And so it fell to the lawyers and the politicians to discuss Brochin's bill to restrict how and when law enforcement agencies throughout Maryland conduct strip- and body-cavity searches. It would write into law parameters already set by the state's highest court but ones that Brochin argued many police departments fail to follow.

The rules, Brochin said, "are common-sense things that you think are happening today but are not."

So common-sense, in fact, that the one person you'd expect to oppose this bill couldn't find much to oppose at all.

Phil Hinkle, general counsel for the Charles County Sheriff's Department and a representative for Maryland police chiefs, had few quibbles.

Brochin's bill would restrict strip-searches to suspects believed to be hiding weapons or drugs, and Hinkle wanted to expand that slightly to include "other evidence of crime." After all, he pointed out, "Who knows what people hide in their pants?"

He also wanted a better definition of who has to sign off on a strip-search so that the state police superintendent isn't called every night at 3 a.m.

Other than that, Hinkle stated the obvious - that police departments throughout Maryland should have rules and regulations about how and when to conduct strip-searches and that those rules and regulations should conform to recent opinions by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

A few senators, such as Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat who also is a public defender, said she hears from clients all the time about strip-searches on city streets, and she wanted to make sure Brochin's bill did not limit its scope to Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center, where the most recent accusations are aimed.

Baltimore police face a $210 million lawsuit by a man who says he was strip-searched on Patterson Park Avenue.

Robert Schulte, the attorney for the three people who had been scheduled to testify, said he's learned through depositions that strip-searches are routinely done at the booking center. State prison officials have denied that and said that at least one of Schulte's clients, Rosemary Munyiri, was not strip-searched.

Munyiri, a cardiac nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital, was stopped by city police in April 2008.

Schulte described his 29-year-old client's encounter in detail for the Senate committee, telling them "she was stripped of her clothing and, I would argue, her dignity."

Earlier this month, a federal judge in Baltimore granted class action status to people suing Maryland over strip-searches at the booking center. That opens the state to liability on a grand scale. If law enforcement wasn't watching the Court of Appeals, maybe they'll pay attention to a new law.

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