Court: Rape victim can sue after being arrested and denied contraception

By David Edwards
Tuesday, June 26, 2012 16:40 EDT
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Jailed woman behind bars (Shutterstock.com)
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A rape victim who was arrested after reporting her attack to the Tampa police can sue the prison employee who refused to allow her access to a contraception pill due to religious beliefs, a federal court has ruled.

The victim, who is only identified as R.W. in court records, visited Tampa’s Rape Crisis Center on Jan. 27, 2007 where a “rape kit” procedure was performed and she was given two contraception pills. The doctor instructed her to take one pill immediately and the second one 12 hours later.

R.W. then reported her rape to Tampa police and was arrested after it was discovered she was wanted for failure to appear and failure to pay restitution on a previous charge.

When R.W. requested her second contraception pill the next morning, Hillsborough County Jail employee Michele Spinelli refused on religious grounds.

“Spinelli told the Plaintiff that she would not give R.W. the pill because it was against Spinelli’s religious beliefs,” a complaint (PDF) filed in United States District Court Tampa Division states.

The victim did not get pregnant, but moved forward with a suit against Spinelli and Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee for violating her right to privacy, gender discrimination and violating her right to equal protection under the the 14th Amendment.

In March, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich ruled that a suit against Spinelli could proceed but granted a motion to dismiss the complaint against Sheriff David Gee.

“An individual’s decision to use or not to use contraception is undoubtedly among those fundamental decisions protection by the right of privacy,” Kovachevich wrote. “Defendants’ argument that Spinelli’s actions did not place an undue burden on plaintiff’s right to terminate her pregnancy completely miss the mark.”

On Monday, Court House News Service reported that Kovachevich had ruled on an amended complaint and found that additional facts were “sufficient to render her claims plausible.”

Although Spinelli worked at the jail for a private contractor, “Gee did not promulgate any policy on refusals to dispense anti-conceptive medication based on religious beliefs,” Kovachevich explained in the ruling.

“Gee, as the representative of the municipality, promulgated no policy on anticonceptive medication and provided no guidance or supervision to Spinelli on the matter. Given that some entity must set policy for the government in each situation, plaintiff has rendered plausible the claim that Spinelli was designated the final policy-maker with respect to her decision to withhold anti-conceptive medication for religious reasons.”

The state of Florida’s “conscience clause” prevents physicians and other people from being liable for refusing to dispense contraception or other family planning services.

Photo: Shutterstock.com

David Edwards
David Edwards
David Edwards has served as an editor at Raw Story since 2006. His work can also be found at Crooks & Liars, and he's also been published at The BRAD BLOG. He came to Raw Story after working as a network manager for the state of North Carolina and as as engineer developing enterprise resource planning software. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidEdwards.
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