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Illegal Strip Searches Cost MTC, New Mexico County $8.5 Million

Management and Training Corporation (MTC) and Santa Fe County, New Mexico, will pay $8.5 million to settle with an estimated 13,000 former prisoners who were unconstitutionally strip searched at the Santa. Fe County Detention Facility between January 2002 and June 2006. The Utah-based MTC, which operated the jail from October 2001 until April 2005 under a contract with the county, will be responsible for the bulk of the payout--$8 million--while the county will pay $500,000, according to the settlement agreement filed in federal court on July 6, 2006.

The jail?s blanket strip search policy was first brought to light in September 2004 when a local newspaper ran a story on Lisa Leyba, 36, a cocktail waitress and bartender who was strip searched following her arrest for serving alcohol to a minor. She believed the doorman had checked IDs, she said. Leyba, like seven of the other named plaintiffs, had never been arrested in her life prior to the alleged offense that led to her being strip searched. The charges against Leyba were later dropped, according to her attorney in the criminal case, Dan Marlowe.

The lawsuit alleged jailers strip searched every person processed into the jail regardless of any reasonable suspicion they harbored contraband or weapons and despite clearly established law. Filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico on January 12, 2005, the lawsuit alleged claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the New Mexico Tort Claims Act. MTC abandoned the policy three months after the lawsuit was filed.

The 11 named plaintiffs will each receive $42,750 under the agreement. Payments ranging from $1,000 to $3,500 will be awarded to the individual class members depending on when the strip searches occurred and other factors, such as whether their breasts or genitals were touched and whether they were a victim of prior sexual abuse. Also, the Santa Fe law firm Rothstein, Donatelli, Hughes, Dahlstrom and Schoenburg, which represented the plaintiffs, will receive $2 million in fees and expenses.

Leyba and another named plaintiff, Kristi Seibold, 51, said the money is not as important as making sure others will not be subjected to the same humiliation they were. ?It?s bad enough to get arrested knowing you?re innocent, without having to then get humiliated and degraded afterward,? Leyba said. ?You carry it with you.?

Seibold, a mother of two teenage boys, was strip searched twice at the jail in 2006: The first time following her arrest for an unpaid ticket that had in fact been paid, and again after she was arrested on a charge, later dismissed, of failing to surrender her dog to an animal control officer. ?It was absolutely humiliating and shocking,? Seibold said of being strip searched.

The plaintiffs were represented by attorneys John Bienvenu, Mark Donatelli, and Robert R. Rothstein. See: Leyba v. Santa Fe County Board of Commissioners, USDC D NM, Case No. CIV-05-0036-BD/ACT.

Additional sources: Journal, The New Mexican

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Related legal case

Leyba v. Santa Fe County Board of Commissioners