Eleven women and one man have sued the city of Puyallup, claiming it inappropriately video-recorded them undressing or using the toilet at the city jail after they were arrested for misdemeanor DUI.
The plaintiffs filed the personal-injury lawsuit Thursday morning in Pierce County Superior Court. They seek unspecified damages for civil rights violations and invasion of privacy. Police Chief Bryan Jeter and Lt. Edward Shannon also are named as defendants.
The plaintiffs are identified only by their initials.
“I think it is sick that they feel they can get away with this because they are police officers,” one of the plaintiffs said in the lawsuit. “I feel absolutely degraded.”
City officials gave a vigorous defense of the practice of video-recording inmates and DUI defendants and accused one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs of exploiting the state’s Public Records Act to troll for clients.
City officials have committed “no wrongdoing whatsoever,” police Capt. Scott Engle said at an afternoon news conference at City Hall.
Seattle attorney James Egan and Tacoma attorney Julie Kays told reporters at a news conference at Egan’s Seattle office on Thursday morning that the jail’s practice of video-recording people while they change clothes or use the bathroom is shocking.
“This is police misconduct that goes to the heart of our dignity and self-respect,” Egan said
Kays equated the practice to voyeurism and suggested county prosecutors review the case for possible criminal charges.
Some of the female plaintiffs also contend they were ogled and received sexually derogatory remarks from jailers, the lawsuit shows.
Engle and city attorney Kevin Yamamoto said video-recording inmates is common practice at jails across the nation, and Engle added that defendants have no expectation of privacy when brought to jail.
Kays disputed that, calling the practice of video-recording people urinating and undressing “blatant civil rights violations” at worst and “shady practices” at best.
“We would call these guys peeping Toms,” she said of jailers.
Engle insisted corrections officers do not sit around watching people changing their clothes or using the toilet.
“Absolutely untrue,” he said.
Egan and Kays said their clients were arrested on misdemeanor DUI charges that normally do not involve a person being booked into jail. Still, Puyallup jailers forced them to change out of their civilian clothes into jail uniforms, they said.
Many of the women were directed to change inside a holding cell monitored by a security camera, the lawsuit contends. Egan released still photographs captured from the video-recordings to reporters. They show the plaintiffs in various states of undress or using the toilet. Sensitive areas were blacked out by Egan before he turned over the photographs.
In one case, a jailer allegedly asked one of the women who had changed into the jail uniform to go back into the cell and remove her underwear as well, saying it was jail protocol, Egan told reporters.
“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.”
Engle said it’s standard practice for everyone brought to the jail for processing to be asked to change into jail clothes, whether they’re being booked in for the night or simply photographed, fingerprinted and released.
He said it was a matter of safety and security for both jail staff and defendants.
“People who come into the corrections environment commonly hide narcotics, contraband, weapons or other miscellaneous things on their body or in their clothing,” Engle said.
Yamamoto classified the video system in the Puyallup City Jail as “a force enhancer” or an “extra set of eyes” for jailers and said it allows the city to operate the jail with fewer officers.
Ed Troyer, spokesman for the Pierce County Jail, said inmates booked into that facility are not video-recorded while changing clothes or using the toilet. Instead, corrections officers or police pat down suspects before they are booked in and search their personal clothing after they change into jail clothes, Troyer said.
Egan said he uncovered the practice in Puyallup after making blanket public records requests of Puyallup police seeking jail videos, a practice he called “fishing.”
He said he was disturbed at the number of cases he found where women were recorded in various states of undress.
“And I don’t think these 12 are an anomaly,” Egan said.
Yamamoto called Egan’s tactics “trolling,” and said the attorney “cherry-picked” clients with little or no criminal record so they would be sympathetic in court.
Egan previously made a demand for $800,000 in damages, Yamamoto added.
Engle said that jail cameras are plainly visible and that there are signs on doors coming into the facility that say video surveillance is being used. He also said no one had complained about the practice before Egan got involved.
“All arrestees booked into the Puyallup City Jail are treated the exact same way,” Engle said.
One of the plaintiffs, a 28-year-old woman, told reporters Thursday she was brought to the jail two years ago after being arrested for DUI.
She first was told to change out of her street clothes and into a jail uniform behind a curtained area in the main booking area but then was directed to a holding cell when she complained about having to take off her clothes.
She said she noticed a camera in the cell and complained she didn’t want to undress in front of it.
“I was told if I didn’t cooperate I wasn’t going to be released,” she said.
She said she later used the toilet in the cell and learned at least one jailer had watched her because he made a comment about the way she squatted 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.”
Engle said Puyallup officials have asked Egan for specific information about alleged rude comments made by jailers so they could investigate those claims but were rebuffed.