ATHENS, Ga. (CN) - Sheriff's deputies may have violated the civil rights of a couple they took to jail naked after they inspected the woman's body with flashlights, a federal judge ruled.
Megan Mitchell and Clifton Jackson were arrested in Athens, Ga., on Oct. 14, 2010, for possession of marijuana and contributing to a teenager's underage drinking. Earlier that evening, Mitchell and 16-year-old Nikki Beasley left their GED class and went to the home Mitchell shared with Jackson. After Beasley drank alcohol in Mitchell's presence and took a pill, allegedly without Mitchell's knowledge, Beasley got sick and ended up in the emergency room.
Greene County sheriff's deputies who interviewed Beasley's aunt at the hospital decided to talk to Mitchell about the alleged underage drinking and marijuana smoking. The three officers drove to Mitchell and Jackson's home without an arrest or search warrant, according to court papers. Although Beasley's aunt had not mentioned Jackson, the officers relied on a "consent to search" condition in Jackson's previous probation sentence in asking Mitchell and Jackson to let them in the house.
When the deputies knocked on the door, Mitchell and Jackson were both naked. The deputies asked them to open the door, saying "we'll worry about clothes in a minute," the couple claimed in a 2012 federal complaint.
Mitchell claimed she put on a sweater but did not have a chance to button it, leaving her breasts and genital area exposed. Jackson, who was completely naked, claimed the officers refused to let him get dressed after he opened the door.
The deputies asked the couple to sit on a couch and took turns pointing their "high beam" flashlights at Mitchell's body, moving the light from her genitals to her face, according to the complaint.
The couple said the deputies refused their repeated requests for clothes, and invoked the search clause in Jackson's probation sentence to search their bedroom. Mitchell admitted Beasley had drunk alcohol in her presence, and took responsibility for an ashtray allegedly containing marijuana in the couple's bedroom, but the deputies arrested both Mitchell and Jackson, according to the lawsuit.
The officers then took the couple to jail in unbuttoned sweaters, without any pants, underwear or shoes on, the complaint said. Neighbors who saw the couple being escorted from their home testified that they could see Mitchell's breasts through the open sweater and Jackson's private areas under a short jacket.
When the deputies' supervisor asked why the couple had been taken to jail semi-naked, one of the deputies answered, "you are riding like you are hiding," according to court filings.
The couple argued that the officers had violated their Fourth Amendment rights by entering their home without a warrant, arresting them without probable cause, and taking them to jail with their private parts exposed.
But the deputies claimed they had not noticed anything compromising about the arrestees' appearance, and asked the court to dismiss the claims based on qualified immunity.
U.S. District Judge Clay Land upheld some claims on June 12.
The 28-page opinion opens: "Lewis Grizzard, a Southern humorist and legendary columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, observed that there's a big difference between the words 'naked' and 'nekkid.'"
"'Naked' means you don't have your clothes on. 'Nekkid' means you don't have your clothes on and you're up to something," Grizzard wrote in 1986, according to the ruling.
Land said, in this case, whether Mitchell and Jackson "were 'up to something' before defendants arrived at their home is irrelevant."
"If a jury believes that plaintiffs were taken to jail substantially 'naked,' that jury would be authorized to find that defendants violated plaintiffs' clearly established Fourth Amendment rights," the ruling states. "Accordingly, defendants are not entitled to immunity."
Land also found plenty of evidence to support the claim that the deputies had conducted the arrest in an unreasonable manner.
Here the deputies are accused of pointing their flashlights at the couple's semi-naked bodies, refusing their requests for clothes and taking them out of their house without enough clothes on, allowing neighbors and inmates at the jail to see their private parts.
Since even prisoners retain a constitutional right to bodily privacy, the deputies, whose decision was not backed by a legitimate reason, are not entitled to immunity on the claims relating to the manner of the arrest, the ruling states.
That same analysis could leave the deputies on the hook for punitive damages, the court found.
Land did side with the deputies, however, on the "voluntary consent to enter exception" when searching the plaintiffs' home without a warrant. Although Jackson claimed he had not agreed to a "consent to search" clause, his probation relating to a previous criminal offense included that condition, according to the June 12 order.
The "consent to search" may not have been a complete waiver allowing officers to search the probationer's house even when he was not a criminal suspect himself, but the plaintiffs failed to show the deputies violated clearly established Fourth Amendment rights in relying on the waiver, the 28-page ruling states.
Though Mitchell said Jackson's consent did not apply to her, that factor does not strip the deputies of immunity, the court found.
As for the lack of probable cause claim, Land said the deputies reasonably believed that the substance they had found in the plaintiffs' bedroom was marijuana, an illegal substance under Georgia law.