City Reaches $33 Million Settlement Over Strip Searches
By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
Published: March 22, 2010- NY Times
For the third time in a decade, New York City has agreed to pay millions of dollars to settle a lawsuit stemming from the illegal strip searches of thousands of nonviolent prisoners.
The settlement, which was announced on Monday, provides $33 million to the roughly 100,000 people who were strip-searched after being charged with misdemeanors and taken to Rikers Island and other city correction facilities.
Under the Giuliani administration, in 2001, the city settled a similar case filed on behalf of more than 50,000 people who were strip-searched as they waited to be arraigned, spending about $40 million. In 2005, the city once again agreed to pay several million dollars, this time to settle the claims of thousands of people who were illegally strip-searched in at least six New York detention centers, including Rikers Island, between 1999 and 2002.
The most recent settlement stemmed from a lawsuit filed in 2005 by the law firm of Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff & Abady, and covered 100,000 people from 1999 to 2007.
Two years after the suit was filed, the city acknowledged wrongdoing and agreed to install outside monitors to ensure that the practice had stopped. Yet the settlement covers 19 additional claimants who said they had been illegally strip-searched after 2007.
Richard Emery, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, said it had been settled law since 1986 that it was unconstitutional to require people accused of minor crimes to strip naked.
“The city knew this was illegal in 1986, they said it was illegal and they stopped in 2002, and they continued to pursue this illegal practice without justification,” Mr. Emery said. “We hope the settlement constitutes some semblance of justice.”
A lawyer for the New York City Law Department said in a written statement that the Department of Correction and the city “have worked diligently to ensure that both safety and privacy are given high consideration during intake search procedures.”
The lawyer, Genevieve Nelson, said, “The settlement reached today is the final step in a process during which D.O.C.’s intake search procedures were modified in 2007.”
An outside administrator was appointed on Monday by the judge in the case, John G. Koeltl of Federal District Court, to oversee the payments. The lawyers for the prisoners and the city expect about 15 percent of those who were illegally strip-searched to file claims. If that projection is correct, prisoners who receive money can expect to get roughly $2,000. About $3 million of the settlement will go to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.
As part of the agreement, the city said it would pay two women, who said they were forced to undergo gynecological exams without their consent, $20,000 each.
Mr. Emery said many of those who were strip-searched had been accused of misdemeanors like trespassing, shoplifting, jumping turnstiles or failing to pay child support.
“There was no reason to believe they were concealing drugs or anything else,” he said.
David Sanchez, 39, of the Bronx, said he was arrested by police officers in November 2006 for having a small amount of marijuana in his pocket after they stopped him on the street outside of his friend’s apartment. He said the officers searched him twice after he was arrested but did not make him take off his clothes.
But after he was arraigned and taken to Rikers Island, he said correction officers demanded that he take off his clothes and submit to another search.
“I was put into a cage and told to take off my clothes,” he said Monday in a conference room at the law firm, describing how he had to squat and spread his buttocks. “It was horrifying, being a grown man. I was humiliated.”
Mr. Emery said prisoners often had to undress fully in front of other prisoners and guards.
Those being searched had to lift their genitals or breasts, spread their buttocks and allow guards to inspect their body cavities.
Woman who were menstruating were not excluded from this practice, Mr. Emery said.
“I don’t know why it was done,” he said, “but it seems like it was a punishment, a way of showing the inmates who is in charge.”
Daniel C. Richman, a professor at Columbia Law School and former federal prosecutor, said that “given the financial constraints the city is facing, there must have been very bad facts for them to settle for this amount.”
In January, a federal judge ordered the city to remedy years of discriminatory hiring practices by the Fire Department by giving black and Latino applicants jobs in the department, as well as offering retroactive pay and other damages.
The city plans to appeal that decision.
A version of this article appeared in print on March 23, 2010, on page A22 of the New York edition.