$12.5 Million to Settle Class Action Suit Over Strip Searches of NYC Jail Visitors
Since 2012, hundreds of visitors have reported being subject to strip searches and sometimes cavity searches. Settled case law only allows for such searches when there is a reasonable suspicion to justify a search. Reasonable suspicion might result from an obvious bulge in a visitor’s clothing, triggering of a metal detector, an alert from a drug-sniffing dog, confidential information, or a visitor’s documented history of attempting to introduce contraband into the lockups.
The Department of Corrections Inmate Visit Procedures Directive describes the circumstances that might give rise to reasonable suspicion. It then authorizes, only after obtaining a supervisor’s approval, a pat search. The policy does not authorize strip searches or cavity searches for visitors.
The experience of Dana Grottano is illustrative of the kind of violations described in the lawsuit, and she was listed as the only named plaintiff. Grottano passed through a metal detector and by a drug-sniffing dog without incident, but she was randomly chosen to undergo an invasive strip search. She was segregated behind a curtain with her 5-year-old daughter, where she was required to expose her breasts and vagina in full view of her child. The officer told her to “open her legs wider” while the officer placed a hand on Grottano’s vagina. When Grottano seemed unsettled by the experience, the officer explained that the search was “proper procedure.”
A NYC Department of Investigation report released in 2016 described abuses of policy regarding invasive searches. However, recommendations by the DOI were not implemented because of union pressure from the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association. Then-Association head Norman Seabrook was quoted as saying that “the problem here is the DOI’s focus on correction officers and not on inmate visitors.”
This comment came in response to a 2014 DOI report detailing a contraband smuggling ring of COs introducing contraband to prisoners as “much larger than we had seen before and included different facilities.” Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte also blamed contraband on visitors despite repeat and clear evidence that the overwhelming amount of contraband is introduced by COs.
This insistence on alternative facts will cost taxpayers, too. The city agreed to pay $12.5 million in damages to class members, $5.4 million in attorneys’ fees, and $500,000 in administrative costs to oversee a training and accountability program where only retrained officers may work visitation areas.
In addition, officers who have been the subject of complaints may be prevented from working visitation areas in the future.
“Invasive strip searches that violate protocol have plagued the city for decades,” noted Gothamist.com. “In 2010, the city paid $33 million to a class of roughly 100,000 people who were strip-searched after being charged with misdemeanors. Prior to that, there was a $40 million settlement that involved people being strip-searched while waiting to be arraigned. But these lawsuits involved people being charged with a crime, not visitors to a jail.”
Most plaintiffs were represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Beranbaum Menken LLP and Giskan Solotaroff & Anderson LLP. Because the settlement authorized only $4,000 per class member, clients represented by lawyer Alan Figman opted out of the settlement and were proceeding with individual lawsuits. See: Grottano v. City of New York, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 194049.
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Related legal case
Grottano v. City of New York
|Cite||2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 194049|