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Illinois Sheriff Settles Federal Class-action Suit Over Strip Searches

by Derek Gilna

A federal civil rights lawsuit filed in 2012, later certified as a class-action, alleged abuses in the strip-search policy at a jail in Kankakee County, Illinois. The case settled on July 19, 2017; under the terms of the settlement, the county will pay up to $1,472,500 in damages to affected prisoners and their attorneys.

Kankakee County, a short drive south of Chicago, is one of the poorest counties in the United States, and the Jerome Combs Detention Center is one of its largest employers. Situated near a downtown area dotted with abandoned stores and vacant lots, the jail, which has also served as a federal holding facility, has had its share of problems and been the subject of numerous lawsuits.

The class-action suit claimed that the sheriff’s policy required strip searches of all arrestees before they made their first court appearance or were released on bond. The lead plaintiff, Darnell Fonder, had been arrested and transported to the jail in April 2010, then released six days later. He never had to appear before a judge and no charges were filed against him. Fonder argued that the strip search policy violated his Fourth Amendment rights and constituted an unreasonable search and seizure.

According to its terms, the settlement “provides funds to pay up to $750 to each member of the ‘release class’ (for a total of 1,500 claims) and $125 to each member of the ‘general population class’ (for a total 2,500 claims).” Additionally, Fonder received $25,000 while two other named plaintiffs, Theresa Dietz and Stephen Moore, were each awarded $5,000. The lead attorney, Kenneth N. Flaxman, received $810,172 in fees.

The plaintiffs had argued that although there was a written strip-search policy in place, not only was it used excessively when unnecessary for the safety and security of the jail, it was also not applied in a uniform fashion. Some guards would allow an arrestee to undress behind a curtain, take a shower and don jail-issued clothing before emerging; others would require arrestees to undress and shower in front of them, while “still other[s] ... would conduct strip searches or body-cavity inspections only for persons charged with certain crimes, irrespective of whether the arrestee was going to be placed in the general jail population or released on bond.”

Michael W. Condon, the attorney for Kankakee County, maintained that the county’s insurance carrier insisted on the settlement, though it did not admit fault. “Attorney fees are a big reason these lawsuits are settled,” he said. “We felt we would prevail if it went to trial.” Of course, this overlooks the fact that if a constitutional policy had been in place and consistently enforced, the county likely would not have been sued in the first place. See: Fonder v. Sheriff of Kankakee County, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Ill.), Case No. 2:12-cv-02115-CSB-EIL. 

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Related legal case

Fonder v. Sheriff of Kankakee County