In a rare jury trial in Seward a 62-year-old woman was found guilty of assault for an incident last August. During the trail, the defense accused police of holding down the intoxicated woman against her will, stripping her of her clothes, and leaving her naked in a cell at the Seward Community Jail.
Assistant District Attorney Dan Strigle alleged that Agnes Tommy of Seward swung a chair while lying on the floor at Providence Seward Medical Center and that she later kicked an officer during the strip search. Tommy’s attorney, public defender Lacey Jane Brewster, argued that Seward police officers had needlessly detained and unlawfully searched Tommy and that her client had acted in self-defense.
“None of this was even necessary in the first place,” Brewster said during closing arguments. “She wasn’t so drunk she needed to be taken to the hospital against her will. She was not puking. She was not in traffic. She was walking on the sidewalk.”
A jury convicted Tommy of one count each of disorderly conduct and assault in the fourth degree. The jury acquitted Tommy of one assault charge related to the alleged chair-swinging.
The strip search was the conclusion of an almost hour-long episode that began when police took Tommy into protective custody after an officer encountered her on a Fourth Avenue sidewalk and decided that she could not take care of herself, a judgment that Brewster disputes. Alaska law permits the police to take custody of “intoxicated” or “incapacitated” persons and deliver them to a “public treatment facility.”
Over the next forty minutes, as documented on audio recorded by the officer’s digital voice recorder, the situation gradually escalated as Tommy insisted that she be taken home and forcefully and repeatedly told police and medical staff not to touch her. Tommy also repeatedly states that she had a “broken arm,” referring to chronic pain in her right shoulder documented in medical records brought as evidence by the defense.
Tommy was initially taken to Providence Seward Medical Center for a medical evaluation, the first step when police detain intoxicated or incapacitated people. There, Tommy refused medical treatment. Following an alleged confrontation at the hospital, a second police officer was dispatched to the hospital.
The officers transported Tommy to the Seward Community Jail to be booked on a disorderly conduct charge.
After a brief search, Tommy was led into Cell #1, a plain cell where arrestees change into jail clothes, the officers said. Officers attempted to persuade Tommy to remove her clothes, to which Tommy responded only lethargically. Tommy slowly took off her jacket and shoes but then turned and laid down on a blue mattress in the corner.
The two police officers and a correctional officer surrounded Tommy and announced their intention to strip Tommy of her clothing.
“All your clothes are coming off,” an officer announced, “I gave you the opportunity to take it off, and you’re not.”
The precise sequence of events is not completely clear from body camera footage shown at trail, but police said that Tommy kicked an officer before they pinned her to the ground.
Prosecutor Dan Strigle repeatedly asserted that Tommy had “charged” the officers, although officers did not corroborate that claim, and the video did not show Tommy getting up from the mattress.
The stripping left Tommy completely nude and wailing on a blue mattress, the only furniture in the jail’s Cell 1. The officers tossed a set of jail-approved clothing onto Tommy’s back before locking her in the cell.
Department of Corrections policies require full body searches of anyone being admitted to a correctional facility. However, those policies forbid officers to conduct strip searches of members of the opposite sex, except in “exigent circumstances.” Two of the officers involved were male, one was female.
DOC defines “exigent circumstances” as “any set of temporary and unforeseen circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to believe that immediate action was necessary to prevent physical harm to the officers or other persons, the destruction of relevant evidence, the escape of a prisoner, or some other consequence threatening the order [or] security of an institution.”
Prosecutor Dan Strigle argued to the jury that Tommy was wholly responsible for the things that happened to her on Aug. 9.
“At the end of the day, Ms. Tommy placed herself in this condition,” Strigle said. “Had she been in a sober state, she never would have fought with the officers.”