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Alameda County, CA Settles Juvenile Detainee Strip Search Suit for $4.3 Million

Alameda County, CA Settles Juvenile Detainee Strip Search Suit for $4.3 Million

by John E. Dannenberg

In July 2008, Alameda County, California settled a class-action civil rights suit brought by former juvenile detainees of the Alameda County Jail for $4,286,600. The suit was brought on behalf of all juvenile detainees jailed for minor charges who had been strip-searched, in violation of California law and in violation of their civil rights. The three named plaintiffs were awarded a total of $225,000; their attorney Mark Merin received $1 million. The claims administrator was given a budget of $250,000, leaving individual claimants to receive awards drawn from the remaining $2,811,600. Individual awards ranged from $300 to $2,500, depending upon specified circumstances.

The case began when plaintiff Lisa Suon, then 14, was arrested for a misdemeanor and taken to the San Leandro jail. There, she was subjected to visual body cavity searches in the presence of other juveniles who could view her naked body during the search. Plaintiff Jeffrey Pay was similarly abused after minor misdemeanor arrests in 2004 and 2005.
Plaintiff Andy Mean complained that he was subjected to body cavity searches also after each court appearance. All plaintiffs claimed that defendants had no legal cause to conduct strip searches on them. They asserted that the defendants similarly mistreated many other juveniles within the two year period preceding the filing of the instant lawsuit on March 23, 2007.

The plaintiff class sought declaratory and injunctive relief as well. On July 12, 2006, Alameda County changed its policy so as to not strip-search those juveniles whose alleged crimes were minor and did not involve violence, drugs or weapons (“VDW”).

Class member claims were graded for degree of damage from each booking, subject to a 2-booking limit. An arrest for specified misdemeanors would result in a $500 award. If the arrest was for a non-VDW felony, compensation was limited to $300 per booking. If the misdemeanor was not on the provided list - i.e., was very minor - the award was set at $2,500 per booking, as long as the individual had not been arrested for more serious offenses in the prior five years. If the latest offense was a felony not on the provided list, the award would be for $1,500. Plainly, the settlement recognized that those whose offenses were the least serious had been the most disproportionately harmed by the one-size-fits-all treatment that should have been reserved only for VDW offenders.

Since all claimants were minors at the time of their arrests, they were ineligible to collect settlement funds unless a guardian appeared for them. All claims not thus protected were placed in trust of Attorney Merin to hold until the claimants turned 18. However, one caveat was that if any claimant owed work furlough fees, a debt to Alameda County, unpaid child support or court-ordered restitution, up to 50% of their claim award would first be paid against such debt.

Alameda County was tasked with providing the last known addresses of all potential class members. In addition, advertisements were placed in the Oakland Tribune and on three youth-oriented radio stations. Approximately 7,000 claims were anticipated.

Attorney Merin has made a very successful business of this type of case, having won a $6.2 million settlement against Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County one month earlier and a $3.875 million case against Santa Cruz County in August 2008. Other notches in his belt include a $15 million settlement in Sacramento County for adult violations plus another $4 million for juveniles there. He has similar cases pending in Contra Costa, Solano, San Mateo and San Francisco Counties. The latter covers a whopping 47,000 potential claimants. See: Suon v. County of Alameda, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.) No. CV 07-01770MMC.

Other sources: San Francisco Chronicle, Santa Cruz Sentinel.

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Related legal case

Suon v. County of Alameda