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Seminole County Jail Settles Strip Search Suits; Judge Removed From Bench

A settlement has been reached in a class action lawsuit involving persons arrested in open court and illegally strip searched upon arrival at Florida?s Seminole County Jail.

The suit was filed after the plaintiffs were arrested for failure to appear on traffic violations. Seven of the lead plaintiffs were instructed to appear in Courtroom 1B of the Seminole County Courthouse.
After the judge in that courtroom learned there were more people waiting than were on his December 3, 2004 docket, he instructed them to proceed to the courtroom next door. Shortly after arriving at Courtroom 1A, fifteen Sheriff?s deputies entered and arrested all 12 people awaiting their hearings. With the exception of one juvenile, all were taken to the Seminole County Jail where they received strip and body cavity searches.

The arrests came after County Judge John R. Sloop issued warrants for people who failed to appear in his courtroom that morning. Despite being aware of confusion due to courthouse construction, Judge Sloop refused to rescind the arrest warrants even after being advised that all defendants had been in the adjacent courtroom. Sloop only took action after pressure from other judges, but the arrestees were not released until 9 p.m. For his actions, Judge Sloop was later removed from the bench by Florida?s Supreme Court.

The lawsuit against the Seminole County Sheriff?s Office alleged it was policy at the jail that those arrested in open court be ?automatically subjected to a strip or visual body cavity search without regard to their charges, without reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe they were concealing a weapon, a controlled substance, or any other form of contraband, and without prior written supervisory approval.?

The class was defined as all persons who were: 1) erroneously designated during the class period of June 9, 2001 to August 30, 2005 by the John E. Polk Correctional Facility as a ?remand by court? (RBC) and thereby strip searched; 2) who were at the time of the RBC designation facing only charges of a violation of a municipal ordinance, a traffic violation or misdemeanor charges not involving violence, drugs, or weapons; 3) who did not actually appear before a judge prior to the strip search; and 4) for whom there was no probable cause for a strip search to check for contraband or weapons.

Under the settlement, each of the nine lead plaintiffs will receive $40,000. Each other class member will receive $1,800, with there being an estimated 30 members. The jail has since revised its strip search policy to prevent searches such as those suffered by the class members.

The district court awarded $206,000 in attorney fees, costs and expenses, for a total settlement payout of $620,000. The plaintiff class was represented by Randall Berg of the Florida Justice Institute and J. Larry Hanks of Ferndale, Florida.

The class members not only received a monetary award, but also received an apology from the Florida Supreme Court for Judge Sloop?s misconduct. See: Parilla v. Eslinger, USDC, M.D. Fla., Case No. 6:05-cv-00850-GAP-KRS; and In re Sloop, 946 So.2d 1046 (Fla. 2006), rehearing denied.

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Related legal cases

Parilla v. Eslinger

In re Sloop