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Smart v. Santiago

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

May 12, 2015



FREDA L. WOLFSON, District Judge.


Plaintiff, who was released from prison on November 11, 2014, brings this § 1983 action in forma pauperis. Based on his affidavit of indigence, the Court granted Plaintiff's application to proceed in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a) and ordered the Clerk of the Court to file the Complaint. (No. 3.) At this time, the Court must review the Complaint, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) to determine whether it should be dismissed as frivolous or malicious, for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or because it seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. As explained below, the Complaint proceeds in part and is dismissed in part.


Plaintiff alleges that, on October 4, 2014, two unnamed corrections officers performed what is commonly termed a visual body cavity strip search on Plaintiff prior to his visit to the infirmary. (No, 1, Compl. at 6.) Plaintiff was required to remove his clothing, "swipe through his ear, manipulate his ears, open his mouth, move his tongue around, grab his genitals, lift up his testicles, turn around [and] face the wall[, ] l[i]ft up his left foot, th[e]n his right foot[, ] and th[e]n bend over spread[ing] his buttocks[, ] th[e]n squat and cough." ( Id. ) He was then given back his clothing to get dressed, handcuffed, and escorted to and from the infirmary by the two officers. ( Id. ) Because he was shackled and under continuous escort, Plaintiff contends that it was impossible for any contraband to have been transferred to him during this time. ( Id. ) He alleges that upon his return to the close custody unit, he was nevertheless subjected to a second visual body cavity strip search. ( Id. ) Plaintiff contends that the second strip search violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches. He has sued the unnamed corrections officers ("John Doe corrections officers") in their individual capacities, and has also sued Administrator Angel Santiago and Commissioner Gary M. Lanigan ("supervisory Defendants") for allegedly failing to train and/or supervise their subordinates regarding visual body cavity strip searches. Plaintiff additionally alleges state-law claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress against all Defendants, and states in his Complaint that "a notice of tort claim was sent and filed with the State of New Jersey." (Compl. at 3.) He seeks varying amounts of damages from all Defendants.


a. Standard for Sua Sponte Dismissal under the Prison Litigation Reform Act

Per the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Pub. L. No. 104-134, §§ 801-810, 110 Stat. 1321-66 to 1321-77 (April 26, 1996) ("PLRA"), district courts must review complaints in those civil actions in which a prisoner is proceeding in forma pauperis, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), seeks redress against a governmental employee or entity, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b), or brings a claim with respect to prison conditions, see 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. The PLRA directs district courts to sua sponte dismiss any claim that is frivolous, is malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.

"The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) is the same as that for dismissing a complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)." Schreane v. Seana, 506 F.Appx. 120, 122 (3d Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (citing Allah v. Seiverling, 229 F.3d 220, 223 (3d Cir. 2000)). Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the court must "accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Fleisher v. Standard Ins. Co., 679 F.3d 116, 120 (3d Cir. 2012). The complaint must contain "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. Allegations that are no more than legal conclusions are not entitled to the same assumption of truth. Bistrian v. Levi, 696 F.3d 352, 365 (3d Cir. 2012). To determine if a complaint meets the pleading standard, the Court must strip away conclusory statements and "look for well-pled factual allegations, assume their veracity, and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement of relief." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). "The plausibility standard is not akin to a probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

A complaint filed by a pro se litigant is to be liberally construed and held to a less stringent standard than formal complaints drafted by a lawyer. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). Nevertheless, " pro se litigants still must allege sufficient facts in their complaints to support a claim." Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 10-4710, 2013 WL 57895 at *4 (3d Cir. Jan. 7, 2013).

b. Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment Claim Arising from the Second Strip Search

i. Claims Against the Individual John Doe Officers

Plaintiff's Complaint focuses narrowly on the second visual body cavity strip search performed by the John Doe officers and contends that this second search violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. Inmates do not have a Fourth Amendment right to be free of strip searches under all circumstances. See Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 99 S.Ct. 1861, 60 L.Ed.2d 447 (1979); see also Watson v. Secretary Pennsylvania Dept. of Corrections, 436 F.Appx. 131, 136 (3d Cir. Jul. 8, 2011). Although strip searches constitute a "significant intrusion on an individual's privacy, " see United States v. Whitted, 541 F.3d 480, 486 (3d Cir. 2008), where officials conduct such searches in a reasonable manner to maintain security and to prevent the introduction of contraband or weapons in the facility, strip searches do not violate the Fourth Amendment. See Florence v. Bd. of Chosen Freeholders of Cty. of Burlington, 621 F.3d 296, 309-311 (3d Cir. 2010), affirmed ___ U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 1510, 1516-17, 182 L.Ed.2d 566 (2012).

"The Supreme Court has held that visual body cavity searches may be conducted by prison officials without probable cause, but that they must be conducted in a reasonable manner." Brown v. Blaine, 185 F.Appx. 166, 169 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Bell, 441 U.S. at 559-60); see also Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 107 S.Ct. 2254, 96 L.Ed.2d 64 (1987) (a prison regulation which infringes upon an inmate's constitutionally recognized right is valid only if it is reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest). When determining the reasonableness of a search, courts must balance "the need for the particular search against the invasion of personal rights that the search entails" and consider "the scope of the particular intrusion, the manner in which it is conducted, the justification for initiating it, and the place in which it is conducted." Bell, 441 U.S. at 558-59 (holding that the prison's policy of strip and visual body cavity searches, requiring inmates to stand naked, lift their genitals and bend over and spread their buttocks for visual inspection, did not violate an ...

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