San Francisco stripped invasive strip-search jail policy 

click to enlarge Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that everybody can be strip-searched in jails, San Francisco has issued more lenient rules.
  • Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that everybody can be strip-searched in jails, San Francisco has issued more lenient rules.

On April 2, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement agencies can strip-search anyone who is arrested and put in the general population of a jail. The case is called Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, and the petitioner is a man who was pulled over in 2005 for a traffic stop. He wasn’t ticketed, but a search of his name mistakenly showed a warrant for his arrest for failure to pay a fine in 2003.

Before his wife could find the proof that Albert Florence was not a wanted man, he was hauled in to the Essex County Jail in Newark, N.J., where he was booked and strip-searched.

Florence argued that sheriffs needed to have a reason to strip-search people, or else anyone accused of even a minor crime could be forced to undergo the trauma of a strip-search. The Supreme Court disagreed and ruled that safety may necessitate strip-searching everyone who is about to enter the general population of a jail, regardless of the allegations.

In the Florence opinion, the name “San Francisco” comes up six times. Why? Because our Sheriff’s Department used to have a policy of strip-searching everyone booked into County Jail. In 2003, a group of people sued the department, making a similar argument as the petitioner in Florence: You can’t just have a blanket policy of stripping everyone who is arrested for any reason.

The local case was Bull v. San Francisco, and named plaintiff Mary Bull had been forcibly strip-searched after being arrested for vandalism. (She threw fake blood on the ground at an anti-war protest on Market Street.) After the Sheriff’s Department showed evidence of how much crazy and dangerous stuff they had found by strip-searching everyone (e.g., screwdrivers, scissors and syringes), the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the policy of searching all people who come through the jail no matter how minor the offense.

That same file of “things we have found by strip-searching everyone,” relied upon by our Sheriff’s Department in the Bull case, was repeatedly cited in the Florence case to show that local law enforcement is up against a tide of scary contraband. The court in Florence (and Bull) basically ruled that folks who run the jails are in the best position to decide how to keep those jails safe; whether and how to limit the people who are strip-searched is not for the court to decide.

In San Francisco, a new decision had already been made. In 2004, then-Sheriff Michael Hennessey changed the departmental practice and limited strip-searches to people brought to jail for booking who A) Are arrested for drugs, weapons or violence; B) Have a conviction for drugs, weapons or violence within the previous five years; C) Are on parole or probation; or D) demonstrate some other good reason to believe they are carrying contraband. A supervisor signs off on the search.

That 2004 policy is still in force today, so there is no need to worry about the effects of the Florence case on our fair city. But thanks in part to our participation in the Bull case, the same cannot be said for the rest of the nation.

Mirkarimi filing reveals juicy details of behind-the-scene conversations

Mayor Ed Lee suspended Ross Mirkarimi without pay from the office of sheriff on May 20; this triggered a process by which Mirkarimi can be permanently removed that includes a full hearing before the Ethics Commission. Mirkarimi promptly appealed to the California Superior Court to halt that process and reinstate his pay.

The City Attorney’s Office has filed documents with the court defending Lee’s decision. I dug through them to find the interesting parts.

Mirkarimi’s lawyer David Waggoner wrote an email explaining why he was not available to attend an Ethics Commission hearing April 6. It says that Waggoner is “relying on the pro bono assistance of other attorneys, one of whom is out of the country until April 8, 2012.” Sure enough, on April 8, Easter Sunday, news broke that celebrity counselor Shepard Kopp would be joining Mirkarimi’s defense team — apparently out of the goodness of his heart.

The best part about the filings is Lee’s description of his March 19 meeting with Mirkarimi. According to Lee’s statement, “Sheriff Mirkarimi told me that he has not yet told his side of story. I said, Okay, and waited for him to tell me his side of the story. He did not. Instead, after pausing, he asked me whether the suspension was based on his conduct as Sheriff. I responded that it was based on his conduct as a public official. I paused again and waited for Sheriff Mirkarimi to give me whatever information he thought important. He did not. Instead, Sheriff Mirkarimi asked me whether the suspension would be with or without pay. I told him it would be without pay. After giving him another chance to ask questions or give more information, I told Mr. Mirkarimi to consider my instruction to resign over the next 24 hours.”

Can’t you just picture it? Of course, that’s one man’s version of events, and Mirkarimi will probably disagree someday when he actually tells his side of the story. In the meantime, we’ll just watch him do everything in his power to prevent that from happening.

Hot tub time plugged by board member

At last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Eric Mar piped up to plug the 90th anniversary of the Richmond District YMCA. In doing so, Mar extended the following invitation to anyone within earshot, “Please support a great Y. Also, and please join me in the Jacuzzi and sauna when you can, or the weight room one of these evenings. … I’m serious about joining me in the Jacuzzi sometimes, you guys.”

Mar also credited his “great health” to the YMCA gym, prompting Supervisor David Chiu to deadpan, “And I thought Supervisor Mar was healthy because he wasn’t eating Happy Meals.”

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Melissa Griffin

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