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$115,000 Settlement in Seattle Jail Strip-Search Suit

by John E. Dannenberg

King County and the City of Seattle settled a wrongful strip-search suit for $115,000 on May 21, 2003 and also agreed to change strip-search policies at King County jails.

Jasmine Wells and Brian Walton, college students in Anchorage, Alaska, had come to Seattle on November 30, 2000 for Christmas shopping. Unbeknownst to them, activists had assembled downtown in commemoration of the 1999 "Battle of Seattle" World Trade Organization (WTO) protests. Seattle police, in a mass repression of the activists, made a sweep of all people up Fourth Avenue to Blanchard, including bystanders and shoppers. Wells and Walton - who had never even heard of the WTO - were, upon leaving a coffee shop at 9:30 PM, corralled, handcuffed and taken to King County Jail, even after explaining their presence and showing police their shopping bags and purchases. They were released on bond the next morning.

Charged with only blanket minor offenses (Pedestrian Interference, RCW 12A.12.015 and Failure to Disperse, RCW 12A.12.020), they were strip searched and subjected to body cavity inspections. Seattle police thereby disregarded a twenty year old standing federal injunction against strip searches of women charged with minor offenses. (Grew v. King County, No. C-83-157-V (USDC, W.D. Wash.).

Represented by Bainbridge Island attorney Theodore Spearman and Seattle attorney Fred Diamondstone, Wells and Walton sued in U.S. District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, with pendent state law claims, alleging the unlawful strip search; arrest without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment; denial of freedom to remain in a public place and to move from one place to another, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment; assault and battery; false arrest/imprisonment; and malicious prosecution. Police were sued in their individual and official capacities and the City and County were sued on a respondeat superior theory for failure to properly train their employees as to relevant Washington laws and the Grew injunction. A class was also named, consisting of all female prisoners booked at the King County Jail and similarly strip searched without either individualized suspicion or for arrest for specified crimes such as violence, burglary, use of a deadly weapon or a felony drug offense.

The defendants paid $115,000, including attorney fees, to settle the complaint, leaving open the class liability question. King County also issued a notice, to be posted in all jails, advising prisoners of the limitations on permitting strip searches at all, and, whenever justified, the conditions attending such searches. See: Wells v. City of Seattle, No. CV-02-0601 P (USDC, W.D. WA), Press Release, Law Office of Theodore Spearman.

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Related legal case

Wells v. City of Seattle