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Curbing Strip Searches in Wisconsin

NCJ Number
WISCONSIN BAR BULLETIN Volume: 54 Dated: (January 1981) Pages: 28-33
R M Dall'Osto
Date Published
6 pages
This article reviews laws and judicial decisions governing police strip searches up to 1979 and then describes the Wisconsin and Illinois statutes enacted to curb these searches.
In early 1979, residents of Wisconsin and Illinois were horrified to hear of strip searches routinely being conducted by the police on women arrested for picketing and minor traffic violations. Although Federal and case law has sanctioned body cavity searches of persons entering the U.S., numerous cases were litigated in the 1970's challenging prisoner strip and body cavity searches as violations of the fourth and eighth amendments. However, in 1979, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of prison officials to conduct routine strip searches of prisoners after contact visits by reversing a lower court's ruling in Bell v. Wolfish. Recent cases have successfully limited the impact of Wolfish by favoring civil rights plaintiffs and criminal defendants in nonborder, nonprison settings. Courts in New York have ruled that strip searches of students violated their fourth amendment rights and awarded damages. Strip searching traffic offenders and misdemeanants was successfully challenged in a suit filed by the Wisconsin American Civil Liberties Union against the Racine County Sheriff's Department. After strip search abuses were disclosed, State legislators in Wisconsin and Illinois enacted laws limiting these activities. The 1979 Illinois statute makes it a felony for a peace officer to strip search a person arrested for traffic, regulatory, or misdemeanor offenses excepting cases involving weapons or controlled substances, unless there is a reasonable belief that the individual is concealing a weapon or a controlled substance. Wisconsin's 1980 law has similar provisions, but uses probable rather than reasonable cause and has less punitive penalties. It also outlines requirements for conducting a strip search. Many areas of strip search law remain to be defined, but damage suits can now be brought under 42 U.S.C., section 1983. Excerpts from the Wisconsin law and 27 footnotes are included.