Law Enforcement: New York City to Pay Out $33 Million for Unlawful Strip Searches

For the third time in the past nine years, New York City has been forced to pay big bucks for subjecting nonviolent prisoners -- including minor marijuana offenders -- to illegal strip searches. In a settlement announced Monday, the city announced it had agreed to pay $33 million to end the most recent lawsuit stemming from the searches.

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The settlement applies to roughly 100,000 people who were strip-searched after being charged with misdemeanors and taken to Rikers Island or other city jails. These were people who were arrested and strip-searched between 1999 and 2007.

In 2001, under the Giuliani administration, the city settled a similar lawsuit on behalf of 40,000 people strip-searched prior to arraignment for $40 million. In 2005, the city agreed to pay millions of dollars more to settle a lawsuit on behalf of thousands of people illegally strip-searched at Rikers and other city jails between 1999 and 2002.

The most recent settlement came from a lawsuit filed in 2005 by a local law firm. In 2007, the city acknowledged wrongdoing and agreed to hire monitors to ensure that the practice was stopped. But the settlement includes at least 19 people who had been illegally strip-searched after 2007.

Richard Emery, law lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the New York Times it had been settled law since 1986 that it was unconstitutional to require people accused of minor crimes to submit to strip searches. "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," he said. "We hope the settlement constitutes some semblance of justice."

It is expected that about 15% of those illegally strip searched, or 15,000 people, will file claims seeking damages. If that's the case, each plaintiff who files would collect about $2,000, although at least two women subjected to involuntary gynecological exams will receive $20,000. The law firm will get $3 million for its efforts.

Emery said many of those strip-searched had been charged with misdemeanors like shoplifting, trespassing, jumping subway turnstiles, or failure to pay child support. Others were small-time marijuana offenders. Under New York law, pot possession is decriminalized, but the NYPD has a common practice of ordering people to empty their pockets -- which you are not required to do -- and then charging them with public possession of marijuana, a misdemeanor.

David Sanchez, 39, of the Bronx, was one of the people strip-searched after a minor pot bust. He said he was searched twice by officers after being arrested in a stop and frisk outside a friend's apartment, but after he was arraigned and taken to Rikers Island, jail guards demanded he submit to a strip-search.

"I was put into a cage and told to take off my clothes," he said Monday, describing how he had to squat and spread his buttocks. "It was horrifying, being a grown man. I was humiliated."

"I don't know why it was done," Emery said, "but it seems like it was a punishment, a way of showing the inmates who is in charge."

And now the good burghers of New York City will pay yet again for the misdeeds of their public servants. Will the third time be the charm? Check back in a few years.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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