By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The arrest in New York of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade has provoked anger and outrage, especially because she underwent a strip search that some in her home country have called degrading and unnecessary.
But such searches are a common feature of the U.S. criminal justice system, even for defendants from the elite echelons of society.
Strip searches for new inmates are routine in jails across the United States. And defendants are strip-searched every time they leave federal detention facilities, such as for court hearings, and when they return.
In the case of Khobragade, who was arrested last week over how much she paid her housekeeper, she was strip-searched under what U.S. officials said was standard practice for defendants arrested by federal authorities in New York.
While civil liberties advocates have criticized the practice as needlessly invasive and unnecessary in the majority of cases, U.S. courts have largely upheld the searches.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that jail strip searches for new inmates were constitutional, even when there is no suspicion that an individual is hiding contraband. The decision applied to anyone arrested accused of a crime, including relatively minor infractions such as traffic violations.
In 2010, before the Supreme Court ruling, New York City agreed to pay $33 million to thousands of people who underwent strip searches in city jails to settle a class action lawsuit. But a lawyer for the plaintiffs in that case, Richard Emery, said on Thursday that a similar case would likely fail today in light of the Supreme Court ruling.
"It's one of the travesties of current developments in the Supreme Court of the United States that people can be dehumanized in this way for no reason," Emery said.
The U.S. Marshals Service, which handles transport for federal prisoners, has confirmed that Khobragade was strip-searched at a holding cell inside a New York federal courthouse.
In New York, where security is tighter than in other parts of the country, U.S. Marshals follow that procedure for anyone who is arrested and held in a courthouse cell with other detainees, a spokeswoman for the agency said.
In a rare public statement on a pending case involving his office, the chief prosecutor for Manhattan, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, said on Wednesday that the search of Khobragade was "standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor, American or not."
Lawyers at the Federal Defenders of New York, which provides legal representation to large numbers of defendants in the federal court where Khobragade appeared last week, said many clients have complained about the strip searches, which they said appear to take place automatically.
But there are exceptions.
In special cases, such as the arrest of juveniles, the arresting agency can ask that the detainee be kept separate from other prisoners, which would not require a strip search, U.S. Marshals spokeswoman Nikki Credic-Barrett said.
In the case of Khobragade, Credic-Barrett said the Marshals Service received no such instruction from the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, which carried out the arrest.
Unlike in the federal system, individuals arrested by the New York City Police Department are generally not subjected to strip searches in courthouse holding cells, said Tom Repetto, a police historian and author of several books on policing.
However, prisoners are strip-searched upon arrival at the city's Rikers Island jail, as the former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was in 2011 after being charged with attempted rape.
That case prompted its own international outcry over another facet of U.S. criminal justice, the "perp walk," after a disheveled Strauss-Kahn was marched in handcuffs past television cameras. The images shocked observers in France, where such pictures are prohibited from publication before a conviction.
Strip searches are not a routine part of felony arrests in India, and Indians were "understandably outraged," said Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch. But the uproar over Khobragade's treatment has overshadowed questions about the rights of her employee, also an Indian national, Ganguly said.
A senior Indian government source has said Khobragade also was subjected to a cavity search. Credic-Barrett denied a cavity search took place.
Under Marshals Service regulations, a strip search includes visual inspection of the mouth, genitals and anus. A "digital cavity search," by contrast, can only be performed by medical personnel and in some cases may require a search warrant, according to the regulations, Credic-Barrett said.
(Additional reporting by Chris Francescani in New York and Sruthi Gottipati and John Chalmers in New Delhi; Editing by Eddie Evans and Eric Walsh)
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