Teen strip searches prompt Alcorn lawsuit

By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal

CORINTH – Strip searches of three teenagers at Alcorn County’s youth detention center have raised legal questions about that policy and actions by another county’s youth court judge.
A federal lawsuit is expected to be filed today about both in the Northern District of Mississippi.
Jackson attorney Cliff Johnson said the legal action stems from the July 8 arrest of three 15-year-olds in Senatobia after one of their neighbors complained to the police that they walked across her yard.
The two girls and a boy were taken into custody and ordered by Youth Court Master Leigh Ann Darby to the Corinth facility, where they were stripped naked and “forced to squat and cough” while being closely observed by guards, Johnson said.
Their lawsuit claims the facility and officials denied them their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search.
In Alcorn County, Sheriff Charles Rinehart and facility administrator Shelly Hopkins did not answer the Daily Journal’s repeated calls for comment Wednesday.
Earlier this week, Hopkins insisted the facility “follows state policy” on strip searches of juveniles, although Johnson said she told him every juvenile who enters the center is strip searched, regardless of age or charge against them.
Also in Johnson’s legal crosshairs is the Tate County Youth Court system and Darby, who was at the Senatobia Police Department when the three were brought in. She reportedly ordered them sent immediately to Alcorn County on a Friday, which resulted in their spending the weekend there.
Tate County’s board of supervisors recently passed a “no confidence resolution” about Darby and asked Senior Chancellor Percy L. Lynchard Jr. to remove her from her posts as youth court judge, drug court judge and family master.
In the supervisors’ resolution, it notes that Lynchard “redirected” all pending youth court and drug court cases to another judge for September and October.
Darby could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Donald Beard, who monitors juvenile facilities for the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, said the state’s 22 county-operated juvenile centers should set their strip-search policies according to guidelines established by the American Correctional Association.
ACA’s Policy No. 9.8 states that “indiscriminate searches of juveniles shall be prohibited.”
Johnson insists that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans last year instructed that “a strip search of an individual arrested for a minor offense must be premised on a reasonable suspicion that the detainee is carrying weapons or contraband.”
Lee County Juvenile Detention Center’s administrator Capt. Brian Hall agrees, saying its policy is “not a blanket,” but assesses each juvenile entering the facility as to whether there’s “a reasonable suspicion that someone has something concealed.”
“We don’t strip search everyone,” Hall said.
He also said the search scenario raised by the teenagers in Alcorn County would not have occurred in Lee.
“No, they don’t fit the criteria,” he said.
On Oct. 20, the three teens went to trial on the trespassing charge and were found not guilty.
Johnson said Mississippians should be outraged at what happened to his clients, who will speak publicly today about what happened to them.
patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com