Court Allows Suit Over Contraceptive Access

A Tampa, Fla., woman who was jailed shortly after being raped can sue both a prison guard and the sheriff after she was denied access to contraception because it was against the guard’s religious beliefs, a federal court ruled recently.

In January 2007, a woman identified in court records as “R.W.,” visited a rape crisis center in Tampa and was prescribed emergency contraception as a precaution. She took one contraceptive pill immediately and intended to take a second pill 12 hours later, court records said. 

In the process of filing a report on the rape, however, a Tampa police officer discovered that there was an arrest warrant for R.W. She was taken to jail, and her belongings – including the pill – were confiscated. The next morning R.W. asked for permission to take the second pill but was denied by jail employee Michele Spinelli because it conflicted with Spinelli’s religious beliefs.

R.W. sued both Spinelli and Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee.

Initially, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich said that R.W. could sue Spinelli only. But R.W. amended her complaint against the sheriff, and Kovachevich sided with the plaintiff.

The judge held that that even though Gee didn’t instruct Spinelli to deny the contraception, Spinelli became the official policy maker because the sheriff wasn’t on duty at the time and he had never taken a stand on access to contraception.