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New Jersey Jail to Pay $1.2 Million for Strip Searching Detainees

by Kevin W. Bliss

Richard Wright and April Wedding were awarded $10,000 each as representatives in a class-action suit filed against Ocean County, New Jersey for its practice of strip searching everyone booked into the Ocean County Correctional Facility (OCCF), including arrestees held on non-indictable offenses such as traffic violations, contempt of court, civil violations, failures to appear or misdemeanors.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, Carl D. Poplar and William Riback, argued that OCCF’s strip search policy violated the Fourth Amendment, the New Jersey Constitution and New Jersey statutes. They filed suit against the Ocean County Department of Corrections, Warden Theodore J. Hutler and Chief Sandra Mueller for maintaining a policy of blanket strip searches for incoming detainees. They requested certification of a class that consisted of any person in the custody of OCCF between November 28, 2005 and December 28, 2007, held on a non-indictable offense, who was strip searched during the booking process.

Wright was searched after he turned himself in for an open child support warrant in October 2007. Wedding was arrested in August 2007 for failure to pay a traffic fine, and strip searched at the jail. Another plaintiff, Edward Bizzarro, was searched following his arrest in September 2007 for failure to pay child support. The class-action suit alleged there was no particularized, reasonable suspicion that any of the arrestees were concealing weapons, drugs or other contraband, as required by law for searches of detainees with non-indictable offenses.

OCCF policy stated the searches were necessary to prevent contraband from being smuggled into the facility. However, the suit noted that arrestees with non-indictable offenses are “frequently not dangerous and are often released shortly after being placed in custody,” and should therefore be exempt from strip searches.

The defendants agreed to a settlement, which was approved by New Jersey Superior Court Judge Arnold B. Goldman on April 30, 2019. Ocean County will pay each class member up to $300. Valid claims submitted at that time numbered 658, with 203 other potential claims still needing investigation. A total of 7,530 class members could meet the settlement criteria. The settlement also awarded attorney fees and costs of $625,000, to be paid in installments over the next two years. See: Bizzarro v. Ocean County, Superior Court of New Jersey Law Division for Ocean County, Docket No. OCN-L-1644-17. 

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Additional sources: app.com, topclassactions.com

Related legal case

Bizzarro v. Ocean County