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New Jersey County Pays $95,000 to Female Lawyer “Wanded” Between Legs at Jail

by Christopher Zoukis

Bonita Bourke is a 56-year-old attorney and former president of the Warren County, New Jersey Bar Association. She regularly visits clients at the Sussex County jail, and as with all visitors to the facility, must pass through security before entering. One day in August 2014, Bourke said a guard took the screening procedure too far: she was forced to spread her legs while the jailer thrust a metal detecting wand under her skirt.

During the humiliating public search, Sussex County jail guard Long allegedly used his wand to lift Bourke’s skirt so he could move the device further up towards her crotch. Long told her to “spread your legs.” Bourke said she became visibly upset, but Long continued the search. He later apologized as Bourke left the facility, but she claimed she became “anxious and disoriented” and “vomited on the side of the road” while driving back to her office.

Several months after the incident, Bourke filed suit against Long, the sheriff and the county; she argued that the search amounted to an illegal assault and battery, and that Long’s conduct constituted sexual harassment and discrimination. She also said the county and sheriff were negligent and had failed to properly train and supervise Long.

Sussex County Sheriff Michael Strada told The New Jersey Herald that the case was unfounded and the guard had done nothing wrong. The county, however, decided to settle the suit on March 21, 2018, prior to trial. Without admitting liability, Sussex County agreed to pay Bourke $95,000.

Both Sheriff Strada and Sussex County Freeholder Jonathan Rose said the decision to settle was made by the county’s insurance carrier.

“While we stand by the actions and professionalism of the sheriff and his officers, [the Freeholder Board] decided it was prudent to follow the insurance company’s advice to settle this case,” Rose said.

Insurance carriers are not known for giving money away for no reason, however. New Jersey Foundation for Open Government board member John Paff said there was a reason the insurer settled the case, though its motivation was unknown.

“All that is known for sure is that Sussex County or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay Bourke $95,000 than take the matter to trial,” Paff wrote in a blog posting. See: Bourke v. County of Sussex, Superior Court of New Jersey, Sussex County Law Division, Case No. SSX-L-664. 

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Related legal case

Bourke v. County of Sussex