Lupe Cantu lay in the back of her brother's Ford Mustang wanting to throw up. It was Good Friday, so instead of a beef taco, the 41-year-old Catholic woman ordered El Patio's spicy shrimp flameados. After a few bites, she had started vomiting in the restaurant. Cantu asked her brother to stop the car, but he told her to hang on, they were almost home. But a few minutes later he pulled over -- a Fort Bend County sheriff's deputy asked her brother for his driver's license, while Cantu puked on the side of the Southwest Freeway. Sweating in the closed car, Cantu stretched out in the backseat while the officer conducted field-sobriety tests on her brother. Cantu is an office manager for a cardiologist; she had never been stopped by police before, and she thought they would soon be on their way.
The officer opened the driver's-side door, told Cantu to get out, handcuffed her and arrested her for public intoxication. She had drunk only one margarita and says the officer didn't do any sobriety tests on her before putting her in the patrol car with her brother's girlfriend.
Cantu started sobbing. They were a mile from her house in Rosenberg's Greenwood subdivision. She told the officer if he took the next exit he could take her home. It was almost midnight, Friday the 13th, when they arrived at the Fort Bend County Jail. Cantu was ordered to remove her thin silver watch, three rings and six earrings before she and her brother's girlfriend were taken into a small freezing-cold room where two female officers ordered the women to strip.
What? Cantu asked. I'm not taking off my clothes.
Take them off, the officer said. Now.
Cantu's friend removed her shoes, jeans and shirt, stopping at her bra and panties. The guard told her to remove them too.
Afraid that they'd start beating her if she didn't, Cantu pulled off her black boots and slowly took off her jeans, yellow turtleneck sweater and underclothes. The guard ordered the women to raise their arms and then lift their breasts. "What in the hell could I hide under a size B-cup bra?" Cantu asks. Next the women were told to turn around, bend over and spread their butt cheeks while the guard shone a flashlight on their asses. The larger officer, Cantu insists, was leering at her like she was enjoying seeing her naked. The other guard, Cantu says, seemed to feel sorry for them: She offered to bring the women breakfast.
Cantu was fingerprinted, photographed and placed in a holding cell until almost 7 a.m., when her daughter came and paid the $200 bail to free her. A guard again watched Cantu undress and dress as she changed back into her street clothes.
Her brother's strip search, Cantu says, was worse. The guards peeled back the foreskin on his penis to make sure he was wasn't hiding anything there. "I never, ever, knew that they did that," Cantu says. "I thought you go to jail, you make a phone call, they put you in a cell. It's degrading."
Months later, Cantu's brother still avoids leaving the house. He goes to work, he comes home, and he sits in his bedroom. He worries what people he works with and people in the community would think of him if they knew what happened. He thinks the cops might have pulled him over because of his Mustang, so he wants to buy a less sporty car.
Cantu couldn't sleep after the strip search. Her doctor had to prescribe sleeping pills. By Tuesday, everyone in Rosenberg knew what had happened to her. She felt embarrassed and humiliated and didn't talk to her brother's girlfriend for weeks. Cantu is planning to file a federal civil rights suit for the violation of her constitutional rights against unreasonable searches; she has three daughters aged 17 to 22 and says she can't let this happen to them.
"It just shocks me that something as plainly written as the Fourth Amendment can be so wildly ignored by law enforcement," says her attorney John McDowell.
The county's lawyer, John Zavitsanos, admits that until April, guards strip-searched all women booked into the jail. Federal courts have said that officers must have a "reasonable suspicion" to search people arrested for misdemeanors.
Fort Bend County justifies its actions based on nothing more than the jail's floor plan. Arrestees are separated by sex, and the holding cells are situated so men and women cannot see or hear each other. Since the duty officer, seated in front of the men's cell, can't see into the women's cell, guards automatically searched every woman arrested regardless of her charge. They say they had to make sure all the women didn't have any weapons or contraband. The county justifies not hiring another guard to watch the women's cell because it's empty about half the time.
Zavitsanos says all Fort Bend County searches were done by an officer of the same sex in a windowless room with 12-inch-thick soundproof walls. (Cantu insists there was a small window in the door and that someone walked in while she was naked.) "The whole process takes less than five minutes. It's not filmed, it's not taped, no notes were taken," Zavitsanos says. "There were no cavity searches, there were no rubber gloves, there's no touching of any kind."
The search may be "an inconvenience," Zavitsanos says, but he insists that it wasn't a big deal. "It's not like we're stopping people on the street and strip-searching them, or making them disrobe in the back of a paddy wagon," he says.
McDowell says the county was searching all men as well as women. He's filed two suits against the county and plans to file about 15 more this month. Most of the cases involved those stopped for simple DUIs or minor traffic violations that he insists did not warrant a strip search. His phone continues to ring with more potential clients.
"I'm sure they will prevail," says Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas ACLU. "Police have tried to do this around the country. It's just brute force and bully tactics to intimidate."
Strip searches have always been a part of prison history, says Ray Sabatine, director of community corrections in Lexington, Kentucky. He travels the country giving strip-search seminars to county jails, discussing when they can and cannot be legally conducted. "People get real upset over not being able to strip-search [everyone]," Sabatine says. "The courts have said you can't do it. You just can't do it anymore."
Still, officers argue that blanket strip searches keep jails safe for inmates; they prevent people from bringing in drugs, knives or guns. Sabatine has seen arrestees who have syringes stuck up their asses, or have inserted small pistols in their vaginas.
When drugs get inside jails, prisoners can overdose and die. Sabatine has had to call parents and say their child died in his jail from drugs his guards let inside. Sheriffs don't like making those phone calls, he says, so many started doing blanket strip searches to make sure contraband didn't get in.
Jails seemed safer, but the law changed in the 1980s when a Utah woman sued after she was picked up for her husband's traffic tickets and strip-searched. Six years ago the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court in Stewart v. Lubbock, a Texas case that found it was unconstitutional for both a woman arrested for public intoxication and another arrested for writing a bad check to have been strip-searched.
In more and more cases across the country, courts have forbidden officers from strip-searching people charged with misdemeanors unless they have a reasonable suspicion that the suspect is hiding something.
The idea is that a first-time offender isn't planning to be arrested, so he won't think to hide things on his body, since normally people don't use their asshole as an extra pocket. "That's why in a minor offense it's really not justifiable to put them through a strip search," Sabatine says. But a person who's been out of custody and knows he has to return might have something he wants to sneak inside.
Reasonable suspicion is fairly loose and hard to define, making some cases easier calls than others. For instance, if a person has repeatedly been charged with carrying a concealed deadly weapon, it's likely he might have another. Or if a dealer is arrested for carrying drug paraphernalia, it makes sense that he might have swallowed or hidden drugs on him. Then there are trickier situations, e.g., a person may not be strippable based on his prior record, but he may be suicidal and the jailer has to take away instruments of suicide. "In most cases that's clothing," Sabatine says. "You run into some dilemmas."
Zavitsanos claims the county was in compliance with the state's strip search policy. "Fort Bend County was not doing this because they got any great thrill about this; they were doing this because there [are] clearly defined parameters of what is and is not acceptable by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. And they indicated that until recently, strip searches were part of the process," Zavitsanos says. "They have done an about-face and now indicate that strip searches may not be appropriate in all circumstances."
The commission's policy, he says, changed two months ago; Zavitsanos reads aloud from a letter that Terry Julian, the executive director, sent Fort Bend County dated April 17, 2001: "Although in the past, blanket strip search policies have been approved in the name of safety and security, it is no longer wise to continue such a policy."
He says the letter to Sheriff Milton T. Wright Jr. was a "directive" the commission issued to immediately stop strip searches that had heretofore been acceptable. When he takes it out of context, it sounds like Julian was talking about the recent past, but the commission says its policy hasn't changed in 15 years, and that the letter was not a directive to stop blanket searches but rather a reminder that the law says they can't be done.
"Some jails still believed the county jail could strip-search anybody they wanted to just in the name of security," says Christopher Medici, research specialist for the commission. "This has been a refresher in what the law says you can and can't do."
Medici says that after this spring's media coverage of mass litigation on unlawful strip searches, he heard that some county jails in Texas were stripping everyone that walked through the door. That's why Julian mailed a memo to all 235 counties. "It was a matter of getting everybody on board," Medici says. "They were doing strip searches on anybody and everybody they wanted to."
Zavitsanos claimed privilege on the Julian letter, refusing to release all but two sentences of it. The Houston Press obtained the entire document through an open records request. It begins by saying that recent case law concerning strip search policies at jails across the country prompted them to issue this "technical assistance bulletin":
"Federal courts have determined that blanket strip search policies are unconstitutional -- a violation of unreasonable search and seizure rights -- when no probable cause for contraband exists. Be aware that if your staff is routinely strip-searching all arrestees at intake as a matter of policy, you may be liable in a lawsuit for violation of arrestees' rights. If, however, there is reasonable suspicion that weapons, drugs or other contraband is being concealed on the arrestee's person, there is likely no violation being committed."
The force of the letter is that jails need to create and follow clear policies on strip searches to avoid litigation because there's been an awful lot in the past year alone. Last month New York City's mayor agreed to pay the largest civil rights settlement in history: $50 million to about 60,000 New Yorkers who claim they were unlawfully strip-searched. Many of them were first-time offenders arrested for minor things like loitering or walking through the subway turnstile two at a time.
In April a federal judge ruled that the Schenectady Police Department in New York had an unconstitutional policy of strip-searching all detainees. That decision came in the case of a man charged with disorderly conduct; he was forced to undress, hold his genitals and bend over in front of a female guard. And Kentucky residents received about $20 million in settlements after claiming to have been unlawfully strip-searched.
"There were thousands of folks that said they were improperly strip-searched," Sabatine says. "It's really hard to disprove that a person was not. Once the litigation starts, it turns into a witch-hunt with everybody showing up saying they were illegally or improperly strip-searched. They see a very deep pocket, and they try to take advantage of it."
Which is what Zavitsanos says is happening in Fort Bend County. He says there weren't any complaints about strip searches until word of the juicy New York City settlement hit the newsstands. McDowell says that is absolutely untrue, his cases were filed in January -- four months before the New York City settlement. Regardless, the commission put together a strip search packet for jailers needing help developing policies. Sent to about a dozen jails, the packet includes a game-boardlike decision tree Sabatine created five years ago. It can be posted for step-by-step help in determining whether a person should or should not be given more than a pat-down.
In his "risk management" seminar, Sabatine discusses "a continuum of search" that starts with simply asking people to voluntarily give up anything they shouldn't have. His jail has a "second chance box," located behind a screen in the booking area. It's a standard mailbox (provided by the post office) where arrestees can drop drugs, razor blades or any contraband without being charged. Some jails employ more high-tech measures like X-rays, handheld metal detectors, or "the Boss," a chair with a metal detector in the seat. Sabatine suggests opaque privacy screens behind which the prisoners can change clothes. That way guards can see if someone is sticking something somewhere they shouldn't, but the person feels less exposed.
Still, in the last month Sabatine has seen jails trying to circumvent the law by doing things that aren't technically strip searches, but involve guards staring at inmates naked. Like ogling people while they shower or forcing them to get naked and walk toward them to exchange civilian clothes for prison whites. "Either they're uninformed or they feel their practice is close enough to what the law is so they're justified in doing so," Sabatine says. "They continue to try to grab for reasons to do the search."
On January 20 McDowell and associate Leland Irwin filed the first two lawsuits against Fort Bend County. Gary McMullen is a 25-year-old divorced father who was pulled over driving home from a party. His petition says that after a series of roadside sobriety tests, McMullen was booked and strip-searched. He wants a jury trial and compensation for the mental anguish, emotional pain and torment he has suffered. The notice says he's willing to settle for $100,000 and will take less if Fort Bend agrees to change its policy.
The second suit, filed the same day, is for Sabine Andrae, a German-born woman who's been a U.S. citizen since 1981. She lives in the Pecan Grove development in Richmond and was shopping at Wal-Mart when her child was accused of shoplifting. The Richmond Police Department arrested Andrae (even though she hadn't done anything) and transferred her to the Fort Bend sheriff's office, where she was strip-searched.
"Her case was dismissed real quick," says her defense attorney Chad Ellis. "It was dismissed before we got there." Ellis referred her case and many others that come to his office to McDowell. Andrae too is seeking a trial or a $100,000 settlement.
When they responded to the suits in early May, the county claimed governmental sovereign immunity, saying it cannot be sued. Officials deny that the plaintiffs were subjected to "an unlawful strip search."
On June 1 the county filed a motion to dismiss Andrae's case. "Strip searches have long been held to be constitutionally permissible," Zavitsanos wrote. He cited the 1976 Supreme Court ruling Bell v. Wolfish, which created a balancing test between the need for security and the inmate's constitutional right to privacy. Specifically, that case says it's okay to strip-search inmates after they have a contact visit with the outside world (e.g., a meeting with a lawyer or a loved one) to make sure they don't bring contraband into the facility.
But that's not what this case is about. No one is contesting searches after contact visits, and there is a stack of more relevant federal court rulings that say jails cannot strip-search someone who has committed only a misdemeanor. The county argues that a "strip search is a reasonable security measure that is necessary to discover and/or deter the smuggling of weapons, drugs and other contraband into an institutional facility."
Frisking people is not enough, Zavitsanos says, because male officers are afraid of sexual harassment suits. "It's just a fact that male officers are going to be very reluctant to do a thorough search of female arrestees because they're concerned that somebody is going to complain about them, that they're groping them or harassing them," Zavitsanos says. "What most officers will do is they'll just pat them around the pocket area or the waist to make sure the person doesn't have a gun in their pockets. But that doesn't mean a person is not wearing a gun in their bra, in their panties or on the thigh."
The fact that the county admits doing the searches surprised McDowell and his associate. "We thought that their defense was gonna be that it never happened," says Irwin.
Zavitsanos says that since Andrae was arrested on a charge of shoplifting, it would make sense to strip-search her because shoplifters usually hide what they stole. (This same argument was made in a 1991 case where officers strip-searched people ac-cused of stealing a ring. The court said the search was not justifiable.) Zavitsanos plans to file a motion to dismiss McMullen's suit too.
In short, the county wants to squash these suits, while the prosecution is still recruiting clients.
Amy Lou Fulwiler, a 58-year-old state prison officer in Sugar Land's central unit, ate dinner at a friend's house on May 20, 2000; they worked word jumbles and then sat around drinking tea and talking until about 8:30 p.m. On her way home, Fulwiler stopped to get gasoline and a Lotto ticket.
Leaving the gas station, she turned right onto Missouri City's FM 2234. About two blocks later a souped-up white Chevy Camaro flew by, almost hitting her bumper before swerving into the left lane. "He was going like dynamite," she says. He shone a spotlight in her face, she says, then drove off at what seemed like 90 miles per hour.
At the next light, she pulled up behind him, flipped on the interior light in her '94 Mitsubishi Diamante and started writing down his license plate. The side of the car said "Constable," but the windows were tinted and she didn't believe a peace officer would be driving so erratically -- she thought the car might be stolen. She says he saw her writing then pulled up behind her and turned on his flashing lights.
That's when she started getting scared, she says. Very scared. So she decided to drive to the police station. She flipped on her turn signal and started to make a left into what she thought was the Missouri City Police Department (but it had recently relocated). Just then, she says, another constable came along beside her and ordered her to pull over, an officer got out of the Camaro behind her with his gun pointed at her and told her to get out of the car. "He looked like a juiced-up chicken the way he was jumping around," she says. "I knew they would break my bones, I knew they would knock my teeth out -- this man was crazy."
When she stepped out, she was immediately handcuffed and thrown into the back of the patrol car where she sat for about an hour while they searched her car and ran a background check.
They charged her with evading arrest; at the Fort Bend County Jail a big burly woman ordered Fulwiler to take off her shorts, T-shirt, bra and panties and did a visual cavity search. The guard told her to spread her butt cheeks, bend over and cough. "It was just devastating," Fulwiler says. "Devastating. It was days, months -- I'm not even sure I'm over it yet."
Many people who have been strip-searched say it has the same effect as being raped. Someone forced them to take their clothes off and expose themselves. They feel embarrassed, violated, vulnerable, humiliated and shamed. Some get headaches and can't stop reliving the experience in their heads. They have nightmares or their lives become a nightmare because most people don't like to get naked (involuntarily) in front of strangers (especially strangers in police uniforms). Even at the doctor's office patients are never fully naked.
Fulwiler still has nightmares that she's going to jail, or she wakes up in the night filled with fear. Every time she gets into her car she wonders if she's going to be arrested and strip-searched before she comes home. She says she avoids the road that it happened on and she tries to avoid at all costs places where "bad cops" are.
She used to hang out at friends' houses, but now she spends more time at home. Her garden has flourished, she's planted a lot of rosebushes, flowering hanging baskets and a bleeding heart.
She labeled her personal information file "The Night from Hell" and her son, a graduate of Columbia University Law School, helped her put together a binder about what happened to her that she sent out to about 60 people: senators, commissioners, mayors, judges, attorneys and reporters. "I want everybody in the world to know what happened," she says.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.