Dozens of Seattle-area women who had been booked for DUI charges are claiming they were inappropriately forced to strip for jailers.
Citing an invasion of their privacy, 12 plaintiffs — 11 women, one man — filed a lawsuit against a police department in a Seattle suburb in August after they were filmed while undressing and using the toilet after they were arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence (DUI).
Since the original lawsuit was filed against the Puyallup Police Department in Pierce County Superior Court, at least three dozen other women have come forward saying they too were forced to strip naked in a holding cell that included a video camera that was monitored by predominantly male jailers.
“We’ve got dozens of other people calling who had similar experiences in Puyallup,” said Seattle attorney James Egan, whose law firm, along with the Connelly Law Offices in Tacoma, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs. “We’re sorting through them right now.”
The plaintiffs are reportedly seeking unspecified damages for civil rights violations and invasion of privacy.
“For an extended period, the Puyallup Police Department has engaged in a pattern and practice of violating the fundamental rights to bodily privacy, dignity, and unlawful searches and seizures of the inmates detained within the Puyallup Police Department’s Jail,” read the lawsuit.
“Plaintiffs had a reasonable expectation of privacy which was violated by their having been secretly videotaped in assorted states of undress. It is believed that officers may have committed this offense for the purpose of obtaining arousal or personal gratification.”
In response to the lawsuit, the City of Puyallup and the police department said filming in jails was a common practice that would not change. “The jail videos we’ve watched so far don’t show any inappropriate activity. In fact, the corrections officers are acting very professionally,” said Puyallup City Attorney Kevin Yamamoto.
He added that all suspects are given clothes to change into before they have their mug shots taken and have their identity recorded.
“People are very creative in where they can hide things. They hide things in places you wouldn’t imagine. The jail business is not fun and it’s not safe. So we have to expect the worst,” Yamamoto said. “I’m just as human as anyone else, and I wouldn’t like it. [But] we have a facility we need to ensure the safety of.”
But according to a local news report, at least four jail design experts interviewed said that “videotaping inmates in their most private moments is highly unusual and improper.” Kenneth Burns is one of those experts. He said that he has designed 40 jails, but was “stunned” by the surveillance at the Puyallup jail.
“We do have lots of cameras,” Burns said. “But you cannot watch anywhere where someone is using the shower, toilet facilities, or a changing area.”
Ed Troyer is a spokesman for the Pierce County Jail in Washington state. He said that inmates at that facility are not video-recorded while changing clothes or using the toilet. Troyer said that corrections officers or police officers will instead pat down suspects before they are booked and after they change into jail clothes.
Matthew Leyba is a DUI lawyer in Seattle. In a blog post, he wrote that what’s interesting to him about this lawsuit is that women were reportedly asked to change in a cell that had video capabilities and offered no privacy, while men were allowed to change in a separate room, which had no video camera, behind a curtain.
“It should be interesting to see what happens,” he wrote. “On one hand you have these videos and victims which clearly speak for themselves. However on the other hand you have this DUI Attorney who may just be in it for a quick score as the Puyallup City Attorney suggests. I would be interested in seeing a large sample size of the procedures used by the jail guards. If there is not a pattern and only a few videos were cherry picked by the DUI Lawyer than this lawsuit might not survive.”
Police peep show
In addition to being filmed, some plaintiffs say they were ogled and had sexually derogatory remarks made to them by some of the jailers.
A woman identified in the lawsuit as “S.C.” says she was video-recorded while changing clothes in a holding cell. She says that while she was changing, the officers made inappropriate comments such as, “I love redheads,” and, “You have a nice body.”
“What they were doing is perverted,” she said. “This is like a porn video they were watching. I feel extremely violated. They took me at my most vulnerable part and forced me to indulge in their needs or sick fantasy to watch me undress and gawk at me afterwards.”
Another plaintiff, “M.L.,” was recorded using the toilet and changing her clothes.
“It was one of the worst experiences of my life because of how mean and rude they treated me,” she said. “I am absolutely horrified and violated. I honestly can’t believe it. I had no idea there were cameras around. The fact those are supposed to be police officers upholding our justice system while violating it is absolutely disgusting,” she said.
One woman who came forward after the lawsuit was filed claimed that after she was arrested for suspected drunk driving this past April, she was taken to the Puyallup Police Department and told to take off all her clothes and change into the jail uniform.
Surrounded by four male guards and one male inmate, the woman says she refused and demanded a female officer be present. “Basically I was harassed for not doing it and put back in the holding cell and made to stay there for about 12 hours,” the woman said.
Lincoln Beauregard is an attorney for one of the plaintiffs. He said all of the plaintiffs are “telling us they didn’t know they were being videotaped. They didn’t consent to being on camera. They feel violated by finding out this information.”
Another one of the plaintiffs said that when she was brought to the jail two years ago after being arrested for a DUI, she was told to change into a jail uniform behind a curtained area. But when she complained about having to change her clothes, the officers moved her to a holding cell where she was told to change.
The woman says she noticed a camera and said she didn’t want to undress in front of it, but was told “if I didn’t cooperate I wasn’t going to be released.” She added that she used the toilet while in the cell and learned later that at least one jailer had watched her because he made a comment to her about squatting on the toilet instead of sitting down.
“I felt even more violated because I knew they were watching,” she said. “It’s pathetic. I think it needs to stop.”
“We did nothing wrong”
In response to the lawsuit, the City of Puyallup and the police department issued a joint release saying they believe that despite “salacious mischaracterizations” from a lawyer, “The City believes the lawsuit has no legal merits and will vigorously and forthrightly present its’ [sic] case in a court of law.”
“The City’s jail safety cameras monitor and record all criminal suspects booked into the jail regardless of gender. When a person is booked into jail they are required to change into a jail uniform. The standard practice is to have the inmate change into the jail uniform behind a curtain outside the direct view of any jail safety camera.
“Once an inmate is done with the booking process they are placed in a holding cell. The holding cells have a safety camera that records the entire cell, which does include a toilet. However, to be clear, the safety cameras monitor jail cells, not bathrooms. While at first blush it might seem a little intrusive to have a safety camera monitoring a holding cell, there are numerous reasons why these safety cameras are present and critical to maintaining a safe and efficient jail.
“Like most jails, corrections staff are significantly outnumbered by inmates. It is impossible with standard jail staffing levels to have a corrections officer physically stand outside each individual jail cell and monitor what occurs in that cell. Instead, jails use safety cameras to monitor numerous jail cells all at once. The need for the safety cameras are critical, as inmates may have medical issues that arise, may be suicidal, or may attempt to assault another inmate, to illustrate a few examples. The City’s corrections staff have a huge responsibility in attempting to maintain a safe environment for inmates and corrections staff – the safety cameras are a tool used in this effort.”
But Attorney Julie Kays said that the jail’s practice of video-recording people is shocking and amounts to voyeurism. During a news conference she suggested county prosecutors also review the case for criminal charges. “We would call these guys peeping Toms,” she said of the jailers.
Attorneys say that part of the concern in this case is that the plaintiffs were arrested on misdemeanor DUI charges, which usually do not involve a person being booked into jail and changing into a jail uniform.
Egan said one of his clients was told to go back into the cell after changing into the jail uniform because she had not removed her underwear. “What possible security reason could they have … she’s going to hang herself with her panties?” Egan said. “She’s about to be released and out the door.”