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$25.5 Million Awarded in California County Jail Strip Search Suit

by John E. Dannenberg

The County of San Bernardino, California has agreed to settle a federal class action lawsuit filed against its Sheriff’s Department in 2005 for $25.5 million – one of the largest such payouts on record.

On September 26, 2007 the County preliminarily agreed to pay for damages suffered when the Sheriff’s Department indiscriminately strip searched all persons being processed into the county jails, often malevolently abusing them. The focus was on those stripped before arraignment, those searched after being ordered released by the court, and those searched in groups.

Covering the period between May 3, 2003 and March 7, 2007, the class included an estimated 150,000 prisoners and former prisoners. The end of the period coincided with the County’s voluntary cessation of the strip search policy after the lawsuit was filed. The settlement administrator received 20,353 timely claim forms; 781 late claims were rejected by the court.

The lawsuit was brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, California Civil Code § 52.1(b), Penal Code § 4030 and Government Code § 815.6 by former prisoners Karen Craft, Ranette Sanchez, Rosemary Ryan, Georgina Frost, Elroy Hardy, Betty Welch and Veronica Williams as named plaintiffs. Welch complained she had been strip-searched three times; she described the Sheriff’s process of requiring prisoners to squat naked for at least one minute. Welch has steel rods and plates in her leg from a prior car accident and was in great pain while squatting. Another woman, eight months pregnant, was having trouble breathing. Hardy was forced to undress in front of 40 other prisoners and stand shoulder to shoulder with them, while guards walked behind the group observing their exposed buttocks and genitalia. Lurid comments by voyeur guards added to the prisoners’ humiliation.

This topic is a familiar one to PLN readers. It involves the unwarranted, unconstitutional intrusion into the bodily privacy of people who are presumptively innocent, with no reasonable suspicion they may have contraband, when they are detained in common housing with other prisoners who already have been convicted and for whom heightened security concerns are constitutionally permissible.

The settlement was grounded in five separate classes of plaintiffs according to the putative damage they suffered. The first class covered those in pre-arraignment status for charges not involving weapons, violence or drugs, as they were being transferred between jail units. The second class included those in the jail under federal custody under an agreement with the U.S. Marshal’s Service. Third were those in custody of other law enforcement agencies, but who were transiting the San Bernardino County Jail. A fourth group consisted of “prisoners” who had been freed by the court, but had to endure processing at the jail before they were released. The fifth class included those who were subjected to group strip searches but were not members of the other classes.

On March 31, 2008, the District Court approved a final settlement in the amount of $25,500,000. Each claimant will receive an estimated $700-$800, on average, with no payment less than $50. The named plaintiffs will share a total payout of $200,000. In a separate order, class attorney fees were granted in the amount of $6,325,000 – representing the Ninth Circuit’s benchmark of 25% of settlement awards in class action cases – plus $70,564.64 in costs.

The class was represented by the law firm of Litt, Estuar, Harrison & Kitson. See: Craft v. County of San Bernardino, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. EDCV 05-00359 SGL (Final Order of Approval and Settlement, Mar. 31, 2008). The documents are posted on PLN’s website.

Other source: Los Angeles Times

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Related legal case

Craft v. County of San Bernardino