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New Jersey Federal Court Approves $1.5 Million Jail Strip-Search Settlement

by Dale Chappell

On January 31, 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Noel L. Hillman approved a $1.5 million class-action settlement in a case against Burlington County, New Jersey, where hundreds of people were improperly strip-searched at the county jail.

The case dates back to 2006, when Tammy Marie Haas, nine months pregnant at the time, was booked into the Burlington County jail for failure to pay child support. She was strip-searched, told to “bend over, cough, and spread her buttocks,” then sprayed with a chemical delousing agent. A few hours later she was released after she paid the $900 in child support she owed.

Haas filed suit in federal court in 2008, complaining that the strip search violated her civil rights. Other people filed similar complaints that were consolidated with Haas’ case, and Judge Hillman eventually granted class-action certification.

The suit was sidelined while the U.S. Supreme Court decided Florence v. County of Burlington, 566 U.S. 318 (2012) [PLN, July 2011, p.32], which held that people arrested for even minor offenses could be strip-searched when booked into jail. The defendants tried to have the case dismissed based on Florence, but Haas’ attorneys argued that the ruling didn’t apply to arrestees who were never admitted to the jail’s general population. The district court agreed and held that Haas’ case was not affected by Florence.

The class members who qualified for damages included those who 1) were detained at any jail facility in Burlington County as a result of being arrested for a “non-indictable” offense, such as child support orders, traffic offenses, disorderly conduct and other misdemeanors; and 2) were strip-searched at the jail from March 3, 2003 to the date of the court’s order enjoining the county from its strip-search practices.

The district court approved up to $400 for each class member plus $50,000 for Haas and $30,000 for another named plaintiff, Conrad Szczpaniak. Attorney fees and costs in the amount of $925,000 also were approved, plus $300,000 for the claims administrator, to be paid separately from the class damages.

The defendants and the attorneys who represented the class members, Carl Poplar and William Riback, agreed on a total number of 1,778 qualified claimants eligible to receive the $400 damage awards. See: Haas v. Burlington County, U.S.D.C. (D. NJ), Case No. 1:08-cv-01102-NLH-JS. 

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Additional sources: law.com, philly.com

Related legal case

Haas v. Burlington County