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Strip-Searched Iowa Bush Protesters Awarded Damages at Trial, Re-Trial

by Matt Clarke

On June 4, 2008, a federal jury in Iowa awarded $750,000 to two political protesters who were arrested at the direction of the Secret Service, taken to jail and unlawfully strip-searched. After the court ordered another trial, a second jury awarded damages in the reduced amount of $55,804.

Alice McCabe and Christine Nelson, both retired school teachers, arrived at Noelridge Park in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on September 3, 2004 to attend a protest. The Republicans had rented the park for the day for a campaign event featuring President Bush. Access was strictly controlled and limited to invited ticket holders.

McCabe and Nelson were wearing anti-Bush buttons and carrying a small sign; they wandered around the perimeter of the event, looking for the protest. There they encountered Secret Service Agent Bruce Macaulay. Macaulay told them to leave the park, and had them arrested when they started to comply. McCabe and Nelson claimed they were singled out for their political opinions because there were many unticketed Republican supporters milling about the perimeter of the park who were not ar-rested.

McCabe and Nelson were taken to the Linn County Jail. Although they were only charged with misdemeanor trespass, deputy jailer Michelle Mais subjected them to a strip search with visual body cavity inspection. The charges were later dropped.

They filed a civil rights suit in federal court alleging their constitutional rights were violated when they were arrested for their political beliefs and strip searched at the jail. Prior to trial, the court held that the strip search was unconstitutional.

At trial, Macaulay testified that he had arrested McCabe and Nelson because they were being unruly and had refused multiple orders to leave the park. The jury found in favor of Macaulay, but awarded $250,000 to McCabe and $500,000 to Nelson in damages against Mais on the unlawful strip search claim.

Judgment was entered for the remaining defendants, including the United States and the Secret Service. On July 22, 2008 the district court awarded $13,314.85 in costs for the defendants who prevailed at trial, against McCabe and Nelson.

On October 2, 2008, the court granted the defendants’ motion for a new trial and vacated the $750,000 jury award. The plaintiffs were ordered to accept a remittitur in the amount of $75,000 ($25,000 for McCabe and $50,000 for Nelson) or retry the case. The plaintiffs rejected the remittitur and another trial was held in late October 2008.

The second jury awarded damages against Mais in the amount of $10,002 for McCabe and $45,802 for Nelson, for a total of $55,804. On March 16, 2009, the district court granted attorney fees and costs to the plaintiffs in the total amount of $34,025.03, though their attorneys had requested $117,249.37. See: McCabe v. Mais, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20717 (N.D. Iowa, Mar. 16, 2009)

McCabe and Nelson have since appealed the court’s rulings, including the order granting a new trial and the order on attorney fees. They are represented by Cedar Rapids attorneys David O’Brien and Matthew J. Reilly. See: McCabe v. Mais, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Iowa), Case No. 1:05-cv-00073-LRR.

Separately, it was reported in August 2008 that McCabe and Nelson received a $50,000 settlement from the state. The Iowa State Appeal Board approved the settlement, which involved claims against two state troopers who participated in their arrest.

Additional sources: Federal Jury Verdict Reporter,

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McCabe v. Mais

McCabe v. Mais