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Hawaii Settles Class Action Wrongful Imprisonment Suit for $1.2 Million

The state of Hawaii has agreed to pay $1.2 million to settle a class action federal lawsuit involving hundreds of wrongfully imprisoned individuals. The state also agreed to implement measures ensuring the timely release of prisoners.

The lawsuit, brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Hawaii, alleged that the Hawaii Department of Public Safety (HDPS) routinely violated prisoners' constitutional rights by holding them past their release dates for hours, days, or weeks in substandard conditions, and, in some cases, forcing them to undergo humiliating strip and body-cavity searches.

Lead plaintiff Gregory Tapaoan, a pre-trial detainee at the Oahu Community Correctional Center (OCCC), was one such unfortunate. After being acquitted of all charges against him on January 30, 2001, Tapaoan was placed in a holding cell at the courthouse for several hours. He was then shackled and transported back to OCCC where he was strip searched and placed in another holding cell. During this time, according to the complaint, Tapaoan was denied proper nourishment, denied permission to make a phone call, forced to wear jail clothing, and harassed and threatened by prison guards angry over his acquittal.

Tapaoan expressed relief that others would be spared similar experiences. I was innocent from the start and it's hard to put into words the feeling of having your freedom stripped away," he said. I was so happy to win my [acquittal] but then had to face being subjected to confinement, and in front of my family no less.

Under the terms of the settlement, tentatively approved by the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii on February 8, 2005, individuals imprisoned between December 1999 and December 2002 are eligible to receive $1,000 for each day they were held past their release date and a one time payment of $3,000 if they were strip searched upon returning to prison. The $1.2 million settlement also covers attorney fees and administrative costs. The deadline for making a claim is November 30, 2005.

The agreement also provides that prisoners entitled to release by court orderincluding dismissal of the charges, conditional release, supervised release, release on own recognizance, deferred acceptance of a guilty plea, or a grant of probationshall be released as soon as reasonably possible, but in no case later than 11:59 p.m. on the day that individual is entitled to release.

The defendants further agreed to implement procedural safeguards to prevent wrongful imprisonment due to late, lost, or missing paperwork. In addition, the HDPS will keep statistical records and conduct yearly audits or reviews of release practices and policies at each holding facility to ensure that inmates are being released in a timely manner," according to the settlement agreement.

A significant portion of the suit had already been addressed before the settlement. In 2002, a State Circuit Court issued an order notifying prosecutors and defense attorneys that acquitted defendants were to be immediately released from court.

Attorney Mark Davis, who assisted with the lawsuit, appeared pleased with the outcome. This important victory will ensure that Hawaii inmates, who have earned their release through acquittal, will have their freedom immediately restored regardless of administrative red tape," he said. Our system of justice has become more efficient and fair as a result of the safeguards imposed by this settlement.

The settlement is likely a relief to Leo Toilolo as well. Toilolo, one of the nine named plaintiffs, was ordered released by the district court on July 24, 2000, after his case was dismissed. At the time, a court clerk informed OCCC guards that it would take a few minutes to process the release paperwork. Rather than wait, however, the guards simply told the clerk to mail the paperwork later. Toilolo was then shackled and taken back to OCCC, where he was forced to strip naked, squat, and bend over for a visual body cavity search," according to the complaint. He remained there another 7 days and underwent at least four more body cavity searches. Toilolo repeatedly asked why he was not being released during this time, and each time the guards told him they were waiting on the paperwork. He was finally released on July 31, 2000.

The plaintiffs were represented by Brent T. White and Susan Dorsey, attorneys with the ACLU of Hawaii, and attorneys Mark S. Davis, Michael K. Livingston, and Stanley E. Levin of the Honolulu law firm Davis, Levin, Livingston & Grande. See: Tapaoan v. Cayatano, USDC D HI, Case No. 01-00815 DAE LEK.

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Related legal case

Tapaoan v. Cayatano