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New York City Arrestee Awarded $5.02 Million in Strip Search

On May 6, 1999, a federal jury in Manhattan awarded $19,600 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages to an arrestee who was strip searched in a New York City jail. In 1997 Debra Ciraolo, 43, an interpreter for the hearing impaired, was arrested after a domestic dispute in Greenwich Village and taken to a jail holding cell. Upon arriving at the jail, Ciraolo was subjected to a visual strip search by two female guards.

Ciraolo said the guards ordered her to remove all her clothes, bend over, squat and cough. The strip search was conducted under a city policy in effect for ten months during 1996 and 1997 under which all people arrested on minor charges in Manhattan and Queens were strip searched. The policy change occurred when the city's Department of Correction took over running the city's lock ups from the police who had previously operated the jails. The strip search policy directly contravened Weber v. Dell, 804 F.2d 796 (2nd Cir. 1986) in which the Second Circuit held that reasonable, individualized suspicion is required before jail detainees arrested on minor charges are strip searched.

Ciraolo filed suit claiming the strip search violated her Fourth amendment rights. The defendants were denied qualified immunity under Weber and found liable. The case went to trial solely for the jury to determine damages. The jury's damage award seems to be in response to the city's "cavalier attitude" in adopting the strip search policy, according to Richard Emery, Ciraolo's attorney.

In addition to Ciraolo's lawsuit, Mr. Emery also represents 63,000 other people who were strip searched under the same policy at issue in Ciraolo's case. The verdict in Ciraolo's suit is likely to spur the city to settle the class action suit.

In a separate lawsuit, four female students from Fordham were strip searched after being arrested for subway turnstile jumping. That case was settled with each plaintiff being paid $25,000.

New York mayor Rudolph Guiliani claimed the strip searches occurred without the knowledge of senior city DOC officials. "This is a situation that was going on, and when it was found out about, it was ended," Guiliani said. "There are people that are entitled to some degree of compensation for it, but they are not entitled to win the lottery over it. And the fact is the state will make appropriate settlements with them."

The case law in most circuits is well established that people arrested on minor charges cannot be strip searched absent reasonable suspicion that they are concealing contraband on their body. Despite the well settled law on this issue, many jails continue to strip search all arrestees absent any type of individualized, reasonable suspicion.

New York Times, New York Daily News, and New York Newsday

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