Internal affairs investigators interviewed Officer Nicholas Hackley after he stripped-searched a man on a public street. | Screenshot from Jacksonville Sheriff's OfficeInternal affairs investigators interviewed Officer Nicholas Hackley after he stripped-searched a man on a public street. | Screenshot from Jacksonville Sheriff's Office
Internal affairs investigators interviewed Officer Nicholas Hackley after he stripped-searched a man on a public street. | Screenshot from Jacksonville Sheriff's Office

Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office sued over strip search

Published on May 10, 2024 at 3:51 pm

A 47-year-old man has alleged in a lawsuit that his constitutional rights were violated when two Jacksonville sheriff’s officers strip-searched him in public, without justification, in September 2022.

Despite failing to find any drugs on Ronnie Reed, the officers arrested him anyway, suspecting he’d given a nearby man cocaine. The officers justified removing Reed’s underwear by claiming they saw him clench his butt, leading them to believe he was attempting to hide drugs or money.

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As Reed was being searched, another group of officers found the money in the other man’s hands, according to body camera footage and a police investigation. Reed was charged with selling cocaine.

After The Tributary reported on the incident, the Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation and disciplined three of the officers.

Those three officers told internal affairs investigators that Sheriff’s Office supervisors never trained them on how to properly conduct a strip search or explained what a strip search is, which is a key factor in the lawsuit filed Thursday by Jacksonville attorney Jack Webb, a former City Council president.

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The lawsuit names Sheriff T.K. Waters in his official capacity as well as the officers who stripped Reed: Joel Belgard, Nicholas Hackley and an unidentified undercover officer, who turned off his body camera during the arrest. 

The fact the men were able to conduct the strip search, which violated Sheriff’s Office policy, without anyone objecting at the time shows the agency has an unofficial custom of allowing these types of searches, the lawsuit argued.

Belgard and Hackley were later found to have violated orders regarding strip searches and both received written reprimands. Both also told the internal affairs investigator that they had never been trained on how to conduct these types of searches. Despite a Florida statute defining what a strip search is, they said they didn’t know removing Reed’s underwear constituted a strip search.

“I believed a strip search was having someone take off their clothing, like completely removing it,” Belgard said. “At the time, I would not have called it a strip search. Looking back at orders and state statute, I would call that a strip search.”

The Sheriff’s Office did not return requests for comment about the investigation in April. However, the agency sent a statement to First Coast News saying, in part, “all police officers receive training concerning searches, to include that strip searches are to be performed by corrections officers rather than police officers.”

The State Attorney’s Office dropped the charges against Reed in February, but only after spending more than a year pressing him to accept a plea agreement that would have sent him to prison for four years. He spent 13 days in jail, which resulted in his losing his job, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit argues the officers violated Reed’s Fourth Amendment right to be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“Mr. Reed had a reasonable expectation of privacy while he walked back to his neighborhood and while he was being detained on a public street,” the lawsuit said. “Mr. Reed did not consent to a strip search. It was unreasonable to conduct a public, highly intrusive, humiliating and harmful strip search of Mr. Reed.”

There were no circumstances that justified the “public, highly intrusive, humiliating and harmful strip search of Mr. Reed,” according to the lawsuit. 

In February, the Jacksonville City Council approved a piece of legislation Waters requested that gives him power to have a say in how the city handles lawsuits like this one. 

The new legislation requires written authorization by constitutional officers for the city to settle any claim involving their office. The council added that if there is a dispute between how the sheriff and the city’s risk management team want to handle the lawsuit, the council president would be the tie-breaker.

This story is published through a partnership between Jacksonville Today and The Tributary


author image Nichole Manna is The Tributary’s criminal justice reporter. You can reach her at nichole.manna@jaxtrib.org or on Twitter at @NicholeManna.
author image Nichole Manna is The Tributary’s criminal justice reporter. You can reach her at nichole.manna@jaxtrib.org or on Twitter at @NicholeManna.

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