The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California sued the Alameda County Sheriff's Office on Monday over a policy that requires every woman in its custody younger than 60 to submit to a pregnancy test — a practice the ACLU says violates women's right to privacy and amounts to unlawful search.
"We wrote the jail a few years back now," Elizabeth Gill, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, said in an interview. "And they just haven't given us a good answer. They refused to change."
Gill said that this lawsuit is the first of its kind in the state of California.
Alameda County Sheriff's spokesperson Sgt. J.D. Nelson said the department has not yet been served the lawsuit.
The suit, filed in Alameda County Superior Court, was filed on behalf of three women — one who was demonstrating at Oscar Grant protest, a political activist and a "Jane Doe" who was arrested after a traffic stop last month.
- Susan Harman, 69, was arrested in July 2010 during an Oscar Grant political demonstration in Oakland and was taken to jail. She is a diabetic and never got insulin, though she did receive a pregnancy test, the lawsuit alleges. She was never charged with a crime, and never told of her pregnancy status, according to the suit. Harman said in the suit that administering pregnancy tests to all women is an "abuse of government power and a waste of tax dollars."
- Nancy Mancias was also arrested at political demonstration in 2012 and was given a pregnancy test, the lawsuit alleges. Mancias said she was even more embarrassed because she had tried to become pregnant but been unable to do so. She said in the suit that she found the compulsory test "inappropriate" and "invasive."
- An anonymous woman identified as Jane Doe was given a pregnancy test on a charge of obstructing a peace officer during a traffic stop last month, according to the suit. She has two children and knew she was not pregnant, the suit alleges.
Gill contends that the pregnancy testing policy violates both arrestees’ constitutional rights and state law, under which every person, including those in the custody of California’s prisons and jails, has the legal right to refuse medical care.
The pregnancy tests administered to women in custody don't seem to be related to providing healthcare, Gill said, and women are not allowed to refuse the tests.
In San Francisco, women who are arrested are given the option to take a pregnancy test as a part of a broader medical screening but can decline after meeting with a medical professional, according to the ACLU.
“If the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department is genuinely concerned about the health of women in their custody, voluntary pregnancy testing should be administered as part of a comprehensive health exam,” Gill said. “Forcing a woman to take a pregnancy test is a clear violation of a person’s constitutional rights, as well as a violation of other state law.”
The ACLU of Northern California filed the suit with pro bono assistance from the law firm of Covington & Burling LLP.