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New York Strip Search Suit Settled for $50 Million

On January 9, 2001, it was announced that New York City would pay $50 million to settle a class action lawsuit involving the suspicionless strip searches of some 58,000 people arrested on minor charges. For ten months in 1996 and 1997 jail guards in Manhattan and Queens strip-searched all arrestees booked into local jails. Most of the arrestees were first time offenders arrested on "quality of life" offenses made infamous by city ayor Rudolph Guiliani, such as loitering, subway of enses, etc.

In 1986 the Second circuit court of appeals had held that before arrestees can be strip searched, jail officials must haveReasonable suspicion that the person is concealing contraband on their person. See: Weber v. Dell, 804 F.2d 796 (2nd Cir. 1986).

In its November 1999, issue PLN reported a jury verdict of $5.5 million in damages in favor of a New York City arrestee trip searched under the city's blanket strip search policy. On appeal, the Second circuit upheld the compensatory damage verdict of around $20,000 but struck down the punitive damage award of $5.5 million by holding that municipalities are not subject to punitive damages. See: Ciraolo v. City of New York, 216 F.3d 236 (2nd Cir. 2000) in this issue of PLN. That ruling, brought by the same law firm who litigated this class action suit, cleared the way for the settlement of this case. The settlement sets forth a complex formula of "points" to determine what compensation is given to each strip searched individual. The lowest amount is $250, the highest is $22,500. If individual plaintiffs feel that they deserve more money they can appeal or they can opt out of the settlement entirely and pursue their own cause of action.

The point system is to acknowledge that some strip searh cvictims suffer more than others. Michael Hess, the city's lawyer said, "We don't want bad people to profit." In essence, the suffering and degradation of prisoners and former prisoners is worth less than that of non-prisoners. Under the settlement, any eligible person gets $250 by filling out forms. Under a second step, claimants can get points worth $500 apiece for a total of $9,750. Two points are given to people strip searched in groups. Women who were strip searched during their menstrual cycle get two points. Abusive conduct by guards during the search or acquittal/dismissal on the arrest charges results in 8 points. However, point totals are halved if the claimant has been imprisoned before. Claimants can pursue a third step if they can show they suffered greater psychological damage stemming from the strip searches for an additional $12,500. This must be supported by medical records such as psychiatric bills.

Richard Emery, the plaintiffs' lawyer said "This is a precedent setting settlement because it recognizes the degrading
and dehumanizing aspects of a strip search and attempts to mold compensation to the individual circumstances of each victim of the city's ill conceived policy." Emery acknowledged that the settlement had shortcomings but "It's just better justice than any other alternative." The settlement is the largest in a civil rights suit in New York City history and may be the biggest settlement against a municipality anywhere. News accounts did not indicate if Mr. Emery's fees were part of the $50 million settlement or separate, nor the amount of attorney fees in the case.

PLN has previously reported large jury verdicts and settlements involving wrongly strip searched prison and jail
visitors and arrestees. The law is clearly established in all circuits that arrestees and prison/jail visitors cannot be strip
searched absent reasonable, individualized suspicion that they are concealing contraband on their person.

Potential claimants in the New York City lawsuit can call 1-866-998-9766 for instructions on how to file a claim for damages in the case. This only applies to arrestees strip searched in New York during the ten-month period in 1996 and 1997.

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