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Pierce County, WA Jail Settles Jail Strip-Search Suit For $667,000

Pierce County, Washington settled a class action suit challenging unconstitutional strip searches of specified pretrial detainees in its county jail for $200,000 in damages, $15,000 in administrative costs and $452,000 in attorney fees. In addition, the Superior Court of Pierce County held that Washington statutes RCW 10.79.120 and 10.79.130, as applied on a blanket basis to pre-trial detainees, were unconstitutional.

Abra Plemmons was a pre-trial detainee who complained of unconstitutional strip searches while in custody at the Pierce County Jail. She sued for damages in state Superior Court, alleging to be a member of a class of similarly abused prisoners. In March 2005, the court evaluated the purported class for certification. It found the numerosity requirement was satisfied because 400-500 persons, each of whom suffered the same injuries, had been identified as possible co-plaintiffs. In addition, the proposed class counsel was deemed adequate based upon their extensive experience in class-action civil rights litigation. Accordingly, the court certified the class of all prisoners booked into the jail on or after December 24, 2000 and who were strip searched without individualized suspicion and who were not there post-conviction, for violent offenses and/or for any felony or misdemeanor offense involving burglary, escape, possession/use of a weapon, a drug or a controlled substance.

In its February 2005 order on opposing motions for summary judgment, the court held that to the extent that RCW 10.79.120 and 10.79.130 permitted strip searches, they were unconstitutionally overbroad as applied to those lesser offenders included in the class. In ruling on the motions, the court granted defendants’ requests to dismiss plaintiffs’ charge of outrage as well as their claims of state constitutional tort liability, malicious prosecution and false arrest. While the court ruled that the named defendants were qualifiedly immune in their personal capacities, it found that they were not immune in their official capacities. See: Plemmons v. Pierce County, 134 Wash.App. 449 (Div. 2, 2006).

The court approved the settlement on December 14, 2007. Named plaintiff Plemmons will receive $100,000. An additional $100,000 shall be set aside to be divided among other qualifying class members, lately estimated to be fewer than 96, which the court estimated would result in individual payments between $1,041 and $4,347. $15,000 more was ordered paid for class administrative costs. Finally, class counsel, who had worked without compensation on a pure contingency basis for four years — including a detour through the state appellate court regarding liability issues — was awarded $452,000. The class was represented by Tacoma attorney Darrell Cochran of Gordon, Thomas, Honeywell and Seattle attorney Fred Diamondstone. See: Plemmons v. Pierce County, Pierce County Superior Court, Case No. 04-2 07032 1.

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Related legal case

Plemmons v. Pierce County