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$2.9 Million Settlement in Suit against GEO over Suspicionless Strip Searches

by Matt Clarke

On May 20, 2010, a $2.9 million settlement was reached in a Pennsylvania federal civil rights lawsuit against GEO Group for performing suspicionless strip searches of people arrested for minor, non-violent, non-drug offenses.

Penny Allison inadvertently missed a scheduled court appointment finalizing her probation program in a DUI case, so the court issued a bench warrant for her arrest. Later, she was pulled over for an expired registration sticker and arrested on the bench warrant. She was taken to the George W. Hill Correctional Facility (GWHCF) in Thorton, Pennsylvania, where she was required to strip naked, squat and cough in front of a room full of women as part of the intake process. A male guard walked into the room during the strip search procedure. At that time, Delaware County was paying GEO over $3 million a month to run GWHCF.

Zoran Hocevar was arrested for inadvertently missing a court appointment on a harassment charge after several other charges related to a domestic disturbance were dropped and he believed the harassment charge had been dropped as well. He was taken to GWHCF where he was strip searched in front of other men as part of the intake process.

Allison and Hocevar filed a class-action civil rights lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal district court alleging that GEO’s blanket strip search policy, which applies to all facilities it operates in the U.S., violated their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by subjecting them to unreasonable searches. GEO filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings after the Eleventh Circuit upheld a Georgia jail’s blanket strip search policy.
The court denied the motion, noting that nine other federal courts of appeal had ruled opposite of the Eleventh Circuit. GEO then settled the suit.

The settlement applies to any person who was arrested for non-violent crimes that did not involve drugs or weapons, had no prior history of such crimes and displayed no behavior that would arouse guards’ suspicion that they were carrying contraband. Such arrestees who were subjected to blanket policy strip searches at any GEO-operated facility in the U.S., including GWHCF and at least five other jails in Texas, New Mexico and Illinois, may be eligible for settlement awards up to $400 each. The settlement applies only to strip searches conducted as part of initial arrest and booking.

GWHCF is currently operated by Community Education Centers of West Caldwell, N.J. To qualify for a possible settlement award, GWHCF prisoners must have been strip searched between January 30, 2006 and January 30, 2008, the time period in which GEO operated GWHCF.

“As a direct result of this litigation, GEO has changed its strip-search policies in those prisons it still operates,” according to plaintiffs’ attorney Joseph G. Sauder of Haverford.
“In our view, there is simply no justification for this kind of invasive body search for those individuals coming to the institution who pose no security risk to the institution,” said plaintiffs’ attorney David Rudovsky of Philadelphia.

The plaintiffs were also represented by Philadelphia attorneys Daniel E. Levin and Jennifer R. Clarke; Haverford attorney Benjamin F. Johns; and West Chester attorney Christopher G. Hayes. See: Allison v. GEO Group, 611 F.Supp.2d 433 (E.D. Penn. 2009).

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

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Related legal case

Allison v. GEO Group