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Maryland prison officials immune from lawsuit

Maryland prison officials cannot be sued for having used a high-tech scanner in an effort to detect illicit drugs on their employees and independent contractors, a federal appeals court has ruled.

In its 3-0 decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit the workers brought alleging that the use of an Ionscan on them violated their constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches.

The officials had no reason to suspect it would be unreasonable for them to use the non-invasive scanner — which detects minute amounts of drugs on bodies, clothing and belongings — to ensure workers were not smuggling drugs into the prison, the 4th Circuit said. The state officials, therefore, retained their qualified immunity from being sued, the court ruled Thursday.

“Requiring prison administrators, on pain of individual damages, to refrain from embracing technological advances in prison administration would substitute judicial guesswork for expert administration and hamstring innovative efforts to resolve complex problems and to address changing conditions within our correctional system,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote for the 4th Circuit.

The eight plaintiff employees were scanned and tested positive for drugs as they reported for work at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown on Aug. 12, 2008. Subsequent body searches of the workers did not reveal any drugs.

The workers included three guards, three civilian prison employees, an independent medical contractor and an employee of the state Department of Education.

They filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore on July 20, 2009, alleging they were scanned without any particularized suspicion that they were in possession of illegal drugs. The named defendants included Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and Kenneth Horning, the training center’s warden, as well as seven security officers at the facility.

U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz dismissed the lawsuit on March 31, 2010, stating that the officials had qualified immunity “because the law regarding the use of Ionscan machines was not clear at the time of the search.”

The plaintiffs appealed unsuccessfully to the 4th Circuit.

Wilkinson was joined in his opinion by Judges Dennis W. Shedd and David C. Norton, chief judge of the U.S. District Court of South Carolina, who was sitting by designation.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Braun et al. v. Maynard et al., 4USCA No. 10-1401. Reported. Opinion by Wilkinson, J. Filed July 21, 2011.

Issue:

Are prison officials entitled to qualified immunity if they use a high-tech, non-invasive scanner to detect drugs on prison workers without particularized suspicion?

Holding:

Yes; the officials had no reason to believe their high-tech security check for drugs entering the prison was unreasonable.

Counsel:

Robert D. Schulte for appellants; Michael O. Doyle for appellees.

RecordFax # 11-0721-60.