Woman claims she was interrogated while naked after strip search turned up contraband

A Kings County sheriff’s official says the incident never happened

By John Ellis
The Fresno Bee

FRESNO, Calif. — A Lemoore woman has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, saying she was interrogated while naked by a male police officer in Kings County Jail after a strip search turned up methamphetamine inside her bra.

A Kings County sheriff’s official says the incident never happened.

According to the lawsuit, Jessica M. Blanco was stopped by Lemoore police officer Kevin Cosper for a motor vehicle registration violation around 3:30 a.m. on Dec. 19, 2013. While searching Blanco, the suit says, Cosper found “a controlled substance.” The suit, filed Dec. 18 in U.S. District Court in Fresno, does not specify the controlled substance, but Blanco’s attorney said in an interview it was Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, which had been prescribed to Blanco but which was not in its prescription bottle.

Blanco — who was on probation at the time for a drug-related offense — was arrested by Cosper, who is one of the defendants in the lawsuit. On the way to the Kings County Jail, the suit says, Cosper interrogated Blanco, who invoked her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.

After reaching the jail, Blanco was turned over to Maribel Mixon, a female Kings County deputy sheriff, for processing. As part of the processing, Mixon made a routine strip search of Blanco. Initially, the suit says, the search was conducted away from male law enforcement personnel.

During the strip search, Mixon — who is also named as a defendant — discovered methamphetamine as Blanco removed her bra. By then, Blanco was completely naked. After finding the drug, Mixon called for Cosper. The suit says Cosper responded “so he could interrogate (Blanco), while unclothed, in an attempt to gain futher incriminating information from her. … His actions were designed to shock and humiliate her, in an effort to coerce her into giving incriminating statements — which she had previously refused to provide — and to retaliate against her for prior refusing to submit to his earlier interrogation.”

“This is a serious violation of our client’s rights,” said Visalia attorney Marguerite Melo, who is representing Blanco. “She’s in an entirely vulnerable position. They both ganged up on my client.”

The lawsuit says the actions were a violation of both Lemoore’s and Kings County’s policies regarding cross-gender strip searches of prisoners and interrogation of detainees while naked. Lemoore and Kings County are also named as defendants.

But Robert Thayer, an assistant sheriff with Kings County, defended his deputy and said the entire incident is bogus.

“We have looked into these allegations and it’s ludicrous,” he said. “It did not happen. Our deputy did not invite a male officer into a strip search area to interrogate a naked inmate.”

In addition to the Blanco incident, the lawsuit claims that both Kings County and Lemoore have “engaged in a pattern or practice” of failing to follow the established rules on both strip searches and interrogating prisoners while they are unclothed.

The suit says the actions violated Blanco’s First Amendment right to privacy, her Fourth Amendment rights on unreasonable search and seizure and her Eighth Amendment rights probibiting cruel and unusual punishment.

Blanco’s criminal case has already been resolved. She pleaded no contest to methamphetamine possession and was sentenced to 2 years and 8 months in a residential treatment program, Melo said. She is currently serving that sentence.

Melo and fellow attorney John Sarsfield are seeking at least $1 million in general damages and at least $1 million in punitive damages, as well as additional money for Blanco’s “mental anguish and emotional distress.”

Lemoore officials declined to comment.

The initial hearing in the case has been set for March 24 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Gary S. Austin.

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