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Wisconsin County Pays $6.95 Million To Settle Strip-Search Suit

by Michael Rigby

St. Croix County, Wisconsin, and its insurer has paid $6.95 million to settle a federal class-action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the county jail's blanket strip-search policy, according to the terms of a February 27, 2004, settlement agreement.
The two named plaintiffs, D.B. and T.B. (names are withheld at counsel's request) sued the County in federal district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 after they were strip-searched upon being booked into the county jail.

D.B. was arrested for driving while intoxicated on December 28, 1998. When he arrived at the jail, D.B. was strip-searched in a hallway and forced to remain there as males and females walked around him. When D.B asked why he was being made to stand naked in the hallway, the jailers responded, to show you what we can do to you if you don't cooperate," according to the complaint. The other plaintiff, T.B., was arrested on April 11, 1999, for driving with a suspended license. At the jail he was first strip-searched then forced to bend over and touch his toes so that jailers could perform a visual rectal search.

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged the County maintained an unconstitutional policy of strip-searching everyone booked into the jail, regardless of whether they were suspected of possessing contraband or weapons. Plaintiffs also sought, and were granted, certification of a class of all persons who had been strip-searched between August 6, 1996 and February 27, 2001 after being arrested on misdemeanor charges not involving weapons or drugs.

Pursuant to the settlement, plaintiffs will receive a total of $6.95 million. St. Croix County will pay approximately $2.5 million, with the remainder being paid by the County's insurer. The two named plaintiffs will receive $35,000 each, said their attorney, Vincent Moccio. Payments to most of the other plaintiffs--possibly more than 2,200 of them--should range from $2,000 to $5,000, he said. (Juveniles making a claim will be paid 150% of the per search compensation amount.) Moccio's law firm will receive roughly $1.4 million in attorney fees.

According to Moccio, many of his clients were shocked to be strip-searched after being arrested for fairly innocuous offenses such as driving with a broken tail-light or bouncing a check. And all were humiliated, he said. Basically, they didn't believe that in the United States, that anyone never found guilty of anything and picked up on a relatively minor charges could be forced to undergo that kind of humiliating and embarrassing situation," said Moccio.

Following the settlement, jail captain Karen Humphrey was suspended for one month without pay for her part in the illegal strip-searches. She began serving the suspension on August 3, 2004. No other disciplinary actions were anticipated. Moccio can be reached at the law firm Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, 2800 LaSalle Plaza, 800 LaSalle Aenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 55402. Phone: 1-800-553-9910. See: Blihovde v. St. Croix County, USDC WD WI, Case No. 02-C-0405-C.

Additional source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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Related legal case

Blihovde v. St. Croix County