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New York City Jail Strip Search Suit Settles For $30 Million

by John E. Dannenberg

On April 27, 2005, the City of New York agreed to settle a federal court class action 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights suit with 57,634 past misdemeanant prisoners at its city jails, paying $750 to each person unlawfully strip-searched upon their post-arraignment jail admission in the period from July 15, 1999 through July 22, 2002. The settlement, two years in the making under a Magistrate's purview, also provides $1,000 for those searched more than once, $25,000 for the named plaintiffs and $500,000 in fees to Brooklyn attorney Richard Cardinale and Middletown attorney Robert Isskes.

Kadian McBean and David Cence had brought suits against the New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) in U.S. District Court (S.D. N.Y.), which the court consolidated, alleging unconstitutional strip-searches they endured while in the custody of DOC upon pending minor charges. DOC had a policy until July 23, 2002 of strip-searching all jail detainees irrespective of the nature of their offense or any reasonable suspicion that they were concealing weapons or contraband.

The law on such illegal searches was clear. The Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals had found such a blanket policy unconstitutional at the Nassau County Correctional Center. See: Shain v. Ellison, 273 F.3d 56 (2nd Cir. 2001) [PLN, Mar. 2003, Pg. 28]. Similar holdings were reached in Murcia v. County of Orange, 185 F.Supp.2nd 290 (S.D. N.Y., 2002) [PLN, Mar. 2003, p.26] and Gonzalez v. City of Schenectady, 141 F. Supp.2nd 304 (N.D. N.Y., 2001) [PLN, Jul. 2002, p.18.].

By altering its policy after the suit was filed, DOC implicitly conceded wrongdoing. The parties proceeded to negotiate a settlement over two years. Compromises reached included excluding certain drug and weapons-related crimes from the presumption of strip-search immunity, accepting all class members without proof of actual individual injury, excluding (but not waiving the rights of) female detainees forced to endure gynecological booking exams, and minimizing administrative costs by agreeing to a one-size-fits-all payment schedule.

Attempting to spoil" this settlement, attorney Richard Emery appeared at the 11th hour as a plaintiff intervenor, trying to snatch the case from Cardinale and Isskes by alleging the claims were really worth $25,000 each, and that the present class attorneys were settling too cheap, at their clients' expense, to unjustly quickly enrich themselves. After protracted proceedings, the U.S. District Court ruled that the settlement already reached was not unfair, was realistic and in any event, not the product of insincere representation by class counsel.

The class certified to receive benefits comprises pretrial detainees who, during the class period [July 15, 1999 - July 22, 2002], were arraigned on certain misdemeanors, violations, and misdemeanor charges of civil contempt, and non felony warrants regarding same, and who, after arraignment, were strip-searched in DOC jails pursuant to the standard new admission strip search procedure." PLN readers who believe they may be class members should contact the Cardinale, Hueston & Marinelli law firm in Brooklyn. See: McBean v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. S.D. N.Y., Case No. 02-5426.

Other sources: New York Daily News, Associated Press, New York Law Journal.

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Related legal case

McBean v. City of New York