Muslim woman awarded $85,000 after her hijab was forcibly removed by Long Beach police officer

The city of Long Beach has agreed to pay $85,000 to settle a federal lawsuit filed by a Muslim woman whose hijab was pulled off by a male officer while she was in police custody.

The settlement, approved Tuesday, concludes the legal battle undertaken by Kirsty Powell, an African American Muslim. Her lawsuit, filed in 2016, prompted the Long Beach Police Department to reverse its policy barring inmates from wearing religious head coverings.

“There really is no justification for taking off a person’s religious headgear,” said Powell’s attorney, Marwa Rifahie, who also works for the Greater Los Angeles Area Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The case started in May 2015 when Powell and her husband were stopped by two officers because he was driving a lowrider vehicle on Long Beach Boulevard, Rifahie said.

She provided them with her identification information. When officers ran her name through their database, they discovered she had three misdemeanor warrants for petty theft, vehicle theft and resisting arrest, police said.

Powell was not aware that a warrant had been issued for a 2002 petty theft offense, her attorney said. The other warrants were issued after Powell’s sister had falsely used her name, according to the federal lawsuit.

As officers prepared to arrest Powell, her husband requested that a female officer be called to the scene since physical contact must be done by a woman, the lawsuit contends.

The officers refused and handcuffed Powell, according to the suit. She was then told she would have to remove her hijab.

Powell told the officers “that she wears a hijab in accordance with her religious practice and that it is her legal right to wear it,” the lawsuit said.

She was driven to the Long Beach police station, where she was booked and stripped of her hijab in front of other male officers and inmates, according to the lawsuit.

Powell was detained for 24 hours without her hijab. Once she was allowed to leave, she was given a property bag containing it.

“She was held in the jail overnight, forced to sit in a cell feeling distraught, vulnerable and naked without her headscarf to everyone that passed,” the lawsuit said. “She cried throughout the ordeal and experienced humiliation when both her religious beliefs and personal integrity were violated. She felt that the male officers and male inmates had seen parts of her body that they should not have seen, according to her religious beliefs.”

Shortly after her release, Powell reached out to CAIR, the Muslim civil rights organization, to go over her options.

In April 2016, she filed the lawsuit, alleging that her 1st Amendment rights had been violated. The lawsuit also contended that the city had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law protecting the religious rights of inmates.

In the months after the suit was filed, the Police Department overhauled its policy to allow inmates to wear their religious head coverings after they have been searched.

“After a thorough assessment of our policy, which included reviewing the procedures used by other law enforcement agencies in the region, it was determined an amendment to our policy was necessary,” the department said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times. “The Long Beach Police Department respects the religious rights and beliefs of all people, and continues to review policy, as law enforcement is an ever-evolving profession.”

Female officers are now required to remove a female inmate’s headscarf, “when necessary for officer safety,” outside the presence of male officers and inmates, said Monte Machit, Long Beach assistant city attorney.

The headscarf is then returned to the inmate.

“In our view, the removal of the hijab by a male officer, in the presence of other males, while consistent with the then-existing Long Beach Police Department policy, may have violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act,” Machit said. “The 9th Circuit [Court] has not specifically weighed in on whether removing the hijab actually violated [the law], but we believed that the existing policy was not consistent with the Act.”

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

Twitter: VeronicaRochaLA

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UPDATES:

Aug. 11, 12:20 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from the Long Beach Police Department.

This article was originally published on Aug. 10 at 7:50 p.m.

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