Wis. city to compensate teen for unconstitutional strip search

Amid an investigation into allegations of sexual assault by Milwaukee police officers, the City of Beloit will pay an Illinois teenager $265,000 after it was found his constitutional rights were violated during an outdoor strip search.

Conner Poff, of South Beloit, Ill., was strip searched by Kerry Daugherty on Jan. 1, 2010 near the Illinois border after the police officer suspected that a bulge in his pants contained drugs. Poff, then 16, was pushed against a car and forced to remove his underwear, where a small bag of marijuana was found. The impact caused by the push broke the car’s windshield and gave Poff a concussion.

According to the Rev. Gregory O’Meara, an associate professor of law, Daugherty’s actions violated Poff’s Fourth Amendment rights, which guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures and require the police to acquire a warrant before any search can be performed.

“The Fourth Amendment states that the government cannot perform a search without a warrant except in exigent circumstances,” O’Meara said. “A search is defined as going into an area where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. A strip search ordinarily would be considered the sort of thing that would be unreasonable.”

Daugherty was not charged with a crime, but received a municipal citation for his actions. Beloit’s settlement with Poff comes as Sgt. Jason Mucha of the Milwaukee Police Department is under investigation for strip searches that occurred in District 5 under his supervision.

In addition to Mucha, seven police officers were suspended and reassigned after several complaints of abuse that occurred in his district. Mucha was the subject of an earlier investigation in which he was accused of beating and planting drugs on suspects. Despite the accusations, Mucha has not been criminally charged for the complaints and was working with an anti-gang unit until recently.

Milwaukee County prosecutors have launched a ‘John Doe’ investigation into the matter. John Does, which are rare and normally reserved for political corruption investigations, allow prosecutors to secretly compel testimony and subpoena records without public disclosure.

Strip searches may only occur after a person has been arrested and in a private location. In addition, cavity searches must be performed in the presence of a medical professional and with the possession of a warrant. Because the alleged searches performed by the MPD officers occurred in public, they do not fall under a recent decision by the Supreme Court that found strip searches to be constitutional when performed in a jail or prison.

The 5-4 decision was in response to a lawsuit filed by Albert Florence of New Jersey after he was taken to jail and strip searched due to an outstanding warrant whose fine he had already paid. Under the court’s decision, law enforcement may strip search any suspect regardless of how minor the crime. Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority’s opinion, in which he argued such procedures were necessary to keep jails and prisons safe.

“Correctional officials have a significant interest in conducting a thorough search as a standard part of the intake process. The admission of new inmates creates risks for staff, the existing detainee population, and the new detainees themselves,” Kennedy wrote. “Correctional officials have to detect weapons, drugs, alcohol and other prohibited items new detainees may possess.”

O’Meara said the court’s decision, although a bit excessive, was not as overreaching as he felt many made it out to be.

“I think it is a narrower case than people think it is,” O’Meara said. “That having been said, it probably goes further than it needs to. There are places they could have drawn the line.”

Amanda D’Agostino, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences, said she felt that such searches were necessary due to the threat of contraband sneaking into jails and prisons.

“I think (strip searches) are reasonable,” D’Agostino said. “If you’re arrested for something, who knows what else you could have?”