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Strip Searches, Mental Health Seizures, and the Fourth Amendment

On Behalf of | Nov 18, 2016 | Firm News

People often associate the Fourth Amendment with its prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures in the criminal context. However, Fourth Amendment protections apply anytime that an officer of the government detains someone. One of the most common applications of the Fourth Amendment outside the criminal context is “mental-health seizures”. The law allows officers to seize a person to ascertain their mental state however the fourth amendment requires that the officer have probable cause that the person is dangerous either to himself or to others before doing so. Just like unlawful arrests, the victims of unlawful mental health seizures can bring a cause of action against the seizing officer for violations of their Fourth Amendment rights.

In a recent decision by the eleventh circuit called May v. City of Nahunta, Georgia a woman successfully brought a lawsuit against an arresting officer and her city for fourth amendment violations. In that case, the plaintiff had a mental breakdown resulting from prolonged periods of caring for her elderly mother. When her mother grew concerned and called the police, an officer went into the plaintiff’s bedroom to investigate. The plaintiff explained that she had been diagnosed with “care giver breakdown” and Pick’s Disease. The officers then asked the paramedics to leave the room and told the plaintiff that she was going to the hospital, instructing her to take off her nightgown and put on more suitable clothing while the male officer remained present in the room. When the plaintiff refused the officer patted his gun and stated “yes, you will”.

The plaintiff brought a lawsuit alleging that the incident and subsequent seizure had violated her Fourth Amendment rights. However, the district court in Georgia granted Summary Judgment in favor of the defendants. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed. The court found that the initial seizure was justified under the Fourth Amendment. It noted that there was probable cause to believe that under the circumstances the plaintiff might have been a danger to herself. However, the court also concluded that once that initial determination was made the police officer that carried out the search in an unreasonable manner.

The court took issue with the “egregious manor” in which the seizure was preformed noting that it was probably unnecessary to ask the plaintiff to strip down in front of him in order to take her to the hospital, particularly when he could have called a female EMT or relative to do so instead. It was also troubled by the fact that the officer had threatened to use force, which could have violated the plaintiff’s constitutional right to personal security.

The May case is a promising decision from the Eleventh Circuit for two reasons. One, it shows that the principles that apply to fourth amendment false arrest claims can also be used in the context of mental health seizures. While this arrest was effectuated under Georgia law the decision would likely also be applicable to arrests made under Florida’s Baker Act. Additionally, the case is a helpful fourth amendment opinion in that it shows that strip searches like the one conducted by the officer here may violate the fourth amendment under certain circumstances even where there is probable cause to effectuate such an attention.