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Gloucester County, New Jersey Settles Jail Strip Search Class Action for $4 Million

by Matt Clarke

On September 14, 2009, the parties in a class action lawsuit against Gloucester County, New Jersey over the county jail’s strip search policies filed a settlement agreement in federal district court agreeing to a $4 million settlement.

Sandra King Wilson was 51 years old when she was arrested for suspicion of shoplifting and probation violation. She was subjected to a visual body-cavity strip search at the Gloucester County Jail. Joseph DePietro, a disabled man receiving Social Security Disability benefits, was arrested for outstanding child support. He too was strip searched at the jail.

Wilson and DePietro were the named plaintiffs in a classaction federal civil rights lawsuit against the county, its sheriff and various jail officials, alleging that the jail’s strip search policies and practices violated the state and federal constitutions, in that they mandated strip searches of persons arrested for misdemeanor or civil violations without particularized suspicion that the arrestees had contraband or weapons. The suit was brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(c), plus specified violations of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution.

The jail changed its policies and practices on February 28, 2009. The class was defined as all persons who were strip searched at the jail between March 24, 2004 and February 28, 2009 after having been charged with nonindictable offenses (such as disorderly persons arrests, traffic violations and/or civil commitment). Arrestees who were made to take a shower or be treated with a delousing agent while completely naked and under the direct supervision of a jail employee were also considered to have been strip searched.

The defendants agreed to pay a total of $4 million and not oppose the award of attorney fees or an incentive award of $15,000 to the named plaintiffs, provided that all payments came out of the $4 million settlement fund. Class members who file a claim form are entitled to a proportionate share of the amount of the settlement fund remaining after incentive awards, attorney fees and administrative costs are paid. The defendants agreed to notify class members by sending correspondence to their last known address, via publication of a notice, using television ads, and by setting up a website. The identities of class members will be kept confidential.

Mediation was used to reach the settlement, in which the defendants did not admit any wrongdoing. The class attorneys are Seth Lesser and Fran Rudich of New York City; Charles LaDuca and Alexandra C. Warren of Washington, D.C.; Elmer Robert Keach III of Amsterdam, New York; and William A. Riback of Haddonfield, New Jersey. See: Wilson v. County of Gloucester, U.S.D.C. (D. NJ), Case No. 06-cv-01368-JEI-KMW.

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Related legal case

Wilson v. County of Gloucester,

Please see the brief bank for documents related to this case.