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$15 Million Class Settlement In Sacramento Jail Strip-Search Suits

The Sacramento California Sheriff's Department agreed to a record $15 million settlement on June 4, 2004 to resolve federal and state lawsuits for damages and injunctive relief regarding illegal strip-search practices at the Sacramento County Jail. The suits stemmed from a policy of mixing felony and misdemeanant detainees together in the county jail, and then subjecting them all to the strip-search standards legally permitted only for violent felony detainees.

Mary Bull and six other protesters were arrested and strip-searched on March 4, 2000 after peacefully demonstrating against state Forestry Board policies. As county jail misdemeanant detainees, they were expressly protected from strip searches by California Penal Code § 4030. "This practice was ruled unconstitutional as early as 1984, yet there seemed to be no attempt to conform to the law," said plaintiffs' attorney Mark Merin. "People were stripped naked and dehumanized before arraignment. It was standard procedure."

Already in January 2003, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Cecil had ruled that plaintiffs were statutorily entitled to awards of $1,000 each. (See: Bull v. County of Sacramento, Sacramento Superior Court No. 01ASO1545; PLN, Dec. 2003, p.16.) Merin then took another suit to U.S. District Court (E.D. Calif.), seeking more sweeping relief. The class settlement was widened to cover an estimated 16,000 prisoners strip-searched between March 14, 2000 and June 6, 2003.

Although Chief Deputy for Correctional Services David Lind called the claims "wild allegations," the settlement contains a multi-tiered schedule providing for payments of from $1,000 (statutory minimum) on up. Specified abusive search behavior will result in standardized awards: $500 for being required to retract one's foreskin; $500 for being subjected to comments by deputies about the size of one's private parts; $500 for having to remove religious undergarments; $500 for being searched in the presence of the opposite sex; $1,000 for being touched in private areas; $1,000 if menstruating at time of search [women detainees were stripped of their sanitary napkins and left to bleed with others having to stand in the blood]. Plaintiffs younger than 21 or older than 60, or who were pregnant when searched, will receive up to $3,500. Higher awards are available where therapy became necessary. The seven original plaintiffs will split $410,000 from the fund of $11.5 million set aside for class members. However, attorney Merin estimated that as few as one in four eligible claimants might seek payment, even after an attempt to reach all class members by mailing claim forms and by advertising in newspapers. County officials could not remember any prior jail related settlement that exceeded $850,000.

$2 million of the settlement will be paid by Sacramento County; the balance will fall to two insurance carriers. $500,000 of the total settlement is reserved for administrative costs. $3 million of the $15 million will be paid to attorney Merin, who is also representing similarly situated detainees in federal lawsuits against San Francisco (Bull v. City and County of San Francisco, C01-1849 CRB), Marin (Chatoian v. County of Marin, C04-2790BZ), and San Mateo (California) counties, as well as in Dade County, Florida. See: Bull v. County of Sacramento, Sacramento Superior Court, Case No. 01A501545.

Additional Sources: Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Daily Journal.

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Related legal case

Bull v. County of Sacramento