Watertown jail’s strip search policy is unconstitutional, suit argues
JEFFERSON COUNTY – Today Legal Services of Central New York and the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Ms. DeAnna LeTray, a transgender woman and Watertown resident who law enforcement harassed, arrested, and assaulted when responding to a call for assistance.
The suit argues that the Watertown Police Department and Jefferson County Sheriff’s office, as well as individual police and corrections officers, variously subjected LeTray to sexual assault, an illegal strip search, and discrimination on the basis of her gender identity, violating her rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment, the New York State Civil Rights Law, and the New York State Constitution.
“The police were called for help. Instead, I was misgendered, assaulted, and dehumanized. I never want anyone to go through the abuse I experienced from people that were supposed to protect me,” said DeAnna LeTray. “Watertown law enforcement and Jefferson County Jail staff must be held accountable for their actions. The abuses that police and jail staff across New York state commit against transgender New Yorkers must end.”
When the Watertown police were called to respond to a domestic incident involving members of LeTray’s household, officers made disparaging remarks about her gender identity and stated that they arrested her because “we can’t let you walk the streets looking and dressed like a woman.” At the police station officers ripped off LeTray’s hair, as they considered her “a man dressed as a woman,” and later at the jail she was stripped naked and subjected to an invasive cavity search. The suit argues that, in addition to targeting LeTray for discriminatory treatment based on her gender identity, the jail has an unconstitutional policy mandating strip searches for all people brought in by the police, regardless of whether such a search is justified.
"Jefferson County and the City of Watertown's policies subject every person arrested and detained by the Watertown City Police to a degrading and humiliating strip search before they have ever been in front of a Judge" said Josh Cotter, staff attorney at Legal Services of Central New York. "The abuse suffered by Ms. LeTray went far beyond Jefferson County and the City of Watertown's already unconstitutional policies and paints a vivid picture of the mistreatment transgender people encounter when arrested and detained in jails."
For transgender, gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and intersex people, going to jail disproportionately results in harassment, degradation, and violence. This is especially true for Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color. One in six people who identify as transgender report being incarcerated at some point in their lives – and this figure jumps to nearly three in six for Black transgender women. In a 2017 survey of transgender and non-binary people incarcerated in New York State, 95 percent of respondents said correctional staff used derogatory names to refer to them.
“The mistreatment and abuse of transgender women by police and jail staff is widespread across New York State,” said JP Perry, staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Thanks to Ms. LeTray’s courage and persistence, we’re taking action today to make it clear that police departments and jails statewide have an obligation to treat transgender people with dignity. We will continue fighting for the safety of transgender people across New York State.”
This case is among the first federal civil rights discrimination challenges on the basis of gender identity since the June 2020 Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County. The Court affirmed that the prohibition on sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extends to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Today’s lawsuit follows a landmark settlement the NYCLU reached with Steuben County in August 2020, establishing one of the strongest jail or prison policies in the country protecting the rights of transgender, gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and intersex people in custody. The policy addresses housing placement, safety, access to medical care, name and pronouns use, search procedures, and grooming standards. It was negotiated with the involvement of the New York State Sheriffs’ Association and can serve as a model for jails across New York state and the country.
The NYCLU earlier represented Ms. LeTray in a 2018 challenge over the state Division of Human Rights’ jurisdiction to investigate law enforcement agencies for discrimination and abuse.
In addition to Perry, counsel on the case includes NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Robert Hodgson, and LCSNY Staff Attorney Josh Cotter, Attorney Seth Buchman, and Director of Advocacy Samuel C. Young
Case materials can be found here: https://www.nyclu.org/en/cases/deanna-letray-v-jefferson-county-et-al