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$4.5 Million Settlement in Texas County Jail Strip Search Suit

On January 12, 2011, a Texas federal court approved a $4.5 million settlement in a civil rights lawsuit involving suspicionless strip searches of people booked into the Bexar County Detention Center (BCDC) in San Antonio, Texas for minor offenses. The settlement will award between $100 and $1,000 to each person who was strip searched without reasonable suspicion, depending on the crime that resulted in their arrest. People arrested for felonies are ineligible to receive any part of the settlement.

Julia Ann Jackson, Erica Bernal and Martin Martinez were arrested for misdemeanors, booked into the BCDC and subjected to visual body cavity strip searches in front of other prisoners as part of the intake process. Jackson and Bernal had been arrested for driving without a license, while Martinez was arrested for DWI.

Washington, D.C.-based attorneys Charles J. LaDuca, Gary E. Mason, Nicholas A. Migliaccio and Alexandera C. Warren – who have extensive experience in similar lawsuits in other states – helped the plaintiffs file a class-action civil rights suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court. They were joined as class counsel by San Antonio attorneys Sam H. Lock and Kerrisa Chelkowski; Amsterdam, NY attorney Elmer Robert Keach III; and Austin attorney James C. Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project.

The class consisted of all persons who were strip searched upon being booked into the BCDC after having been charged with misdemeanor offenses, parole or probation violations, traffic infractions, civil commitments or other minor crimes between November 15, 2005 and April 9, 2009. A subclass consisted of all persons who were charged with misdemeanor narcotics, shoplifting or weapons offenses. Members of the subclass will receive $100 each from the settlement while all other class members will each receive $1,000.

The lawsuit alleged that the blanket strip search policy at BCDC violated well-settled law in the Fifth Circuit requiring a showing of reasonable suspicion that the person to be searched may be harboring weapons or other contraband. The type of charge that resulted in a person’s arrest, such as a felony, may serve to provide such reasonable suspicion. However, being charged with a minor offense does not result in reasonable suspicion absent some type of behavior indicating the presence of contraband.

A copy of the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office search policy entered into evidence revealed that the strip searches were mandatory “[u]pon the admission process, during the issuance of the inmate uniform.”

As many as 30,000 people may qualify for settlement payments according to county spokeswoman Laura Jesse, who noted the county had not admitted the strip search policy at BCDC was unconstitutional.

“The reason the [commissioners] court voted to go ahead and settle is because this sort of lawsuit has already been brought in the federal courts, where those courts found blanket [strip] searches for misdemeanants unconstitutional,” said Jesse, who mentioned that only two federal courts had held otherwise. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.32].

Class counsel assisted the Sheriff’s Office in drafting a new, constitutional search policy, which took effect on April 9, 2009.

Harrington expressed surprise that the unconstitutional strip searches went on for so long, but said the Texas Civil Rights Project would continue to fight similar policies at other jails when they were informed of same. See: Jackson v. County of Bexar, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Tex.), Case No. 5:07-cv-00928-FB.

Additional source: San Antonio Express-News

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Related legal case

Jackson v. County of Bexar