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$7,500,000 Class-Action Settlement for Illegal Strip-Searches in Camden, NJ

by Joe Watson

A class-action, Fourth Amendment lawsuit originally filed by Laverne Hicks and Michael Velez, two New Jersey men who had each been stopped by state police for alleged traffic violations and subsequently strip-searched and jailed by Camden County, was settled in June 2008 for $7,500,000.

Charles J. DeLuca, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said that as many as 20,000 people, including Hicks and Velez, were subjected to the unconstitutional strip searches at the Camden County jail between 2003 and 2005, and would split the cash award, after attorneys’ fees.

Hicks, who received $15,000 of the settlement, was stopped in his car by state police for alleged failure to wear a seatbelt. According to police, a background check revealed that Hicks had failed to pay an outstanding traffic violation, for which he was arrested and transported to the Camden police department. After one hour, Hicks posted bail, but was not released. Instead, Hicks was transferred to the county correctional facility, where he was ordered to remove all his clothing and was strip-searched. He was then imprisoned in a holding cell, fingerprinted and photographed.

Velez, who also received $15,000 of the settlement, was also stopped by the state police for a minor traffic infraction and then arrested for failure to pay. He was ultimately transferred to the Camden County jail, strip-searched and detained. The whole time he was in custody, his family tried to post bail, but the jail would not permit it.

Velez and Hicks claimed to have suffered psychological pain and humiliation as a result of the searches and imprisonment. They sued the county, the jail, the city, the police department, and individual county officers on behalf of themselves and a class of other persons strip-searched at the correctional facility after being charged with petty crimes and traffic violations. The class also consisted of those who paid bail but were still detained and strip-searched.

The plaintiffs, whose case was under the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court of New Jersey, alleged that Camden County jail’s policy allowing for the strip and visual cavity searches violated their Fourth Amendment rights because they were conducted without reasonable suspicion. The searches, they said, also constituted false imprisonment when conducted after bail was posted and without probable cause and an arrest warrant. Lawyers for the defendants responded that the policy was designed to promote safety within the jails and was “reasonable”.

The approximately $4.97 million remaining after costs and attorneys’ fees was to be divided among the class members on a pro rata basis, with each member receiving approximately $1,000. In addition, the defendants agreed to change the strip search policy so that those arrested were no longer subject to a blanket strip search. See: Hicks v. County of Camden, U.S.D.C. (D.N.J.), Case No. 1:05-CV-01857.

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Related legal case

Hicks v. County of Camden