Daily Journal: Supervisors Pay $27 Million to Settle Strip-Search Class Actions

August 15, 2001
By Press

By Erin Carroll

and Gina Keating

Daily Journal Staff Writer s

LOS ANGELES – The county Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved paying $27 million to settle five class actions in which former inmates claim county sheriff’s deputies illegally strip-searched, detained and arrested them using warrants that listed someone else’s name.

The settlement was the largest in a civil rights case in the county’s history, County Counsel Lloyd Pelman said.

Since 1996, the suits allege, as many as 600,000 former prisoners were subject to a variety of illegal practices by the county Sheriff’s Department.

“This settlement saves the taxpayer the expense of housing people who should be free, gets people out quickly without being searched, ends the county exposure to claims like these in the future and resolves the current claims at substantially less than they might have cost after a trial,” Barry Litt, a lead attorney in the cases, said Tuesday.

In one case, James E. Johnson was arrested in 1997 on suspicion of robbery and elder abuse, but even after sheriff’s deputies knew that no charges would be filed against him, he was subject to a body-cavity search in front of deputies and other inmates.┬áJohnson v. County of Los Angeles,BC213059 (L.A. Super. Ct.).

“Our clients were people who were ordered released and, notwithstanding that release order, were searched,” Donald W. Cook, another of the team of attorneys working on the cases, said.

According to the terms of the settlement, which the judges hearing the various cases must approve, the Sheriff’s Department also must adhere to policies to prevent unlawful searches, detentions or wrongful arrests.

Among those, the department must release an inmate on completion of his or her sentence within eight hours of entering release information into the Sheriff’s Department computer system.

Sheriffs also must allow prisoners who are released at the courthouse to leave without being subjected to a strip-search. And if an inmate complains that he or she is not the person named in a warrant, sheriffs must use fingerprints and other information to try to verify the person’s identification.

Sheriff’s spokesman Stephen R. Whitmore said the department is adhering to new policies.

“Persons who must return to jail before they are released are no longer strip-searched, and they are released within eight hours,” Whitmore said.

Litt lauded the actions that the department has taken.

“Thanks to the prompt and comprehensive actions of Sheriff Baca, who inherited this practice, most people are released directly from courthouses without having to spend unnecessary time in custody and without having to undergo visual inspection of their most intimate body parts,” he said.

Approximately $21.5 of the settlement will be used to pay claims and another $5.5 million to pay attorney fees. Between $2 million and $3 million will be set aside to pay for Sheriff’s Department inmate programs and community-based programs for those at-risk of being jailed.

The 62 named plaintiffs in the five cases will be the first to get paid, splitting approximately $750,000. After that, lawyers will use Sheriff’s Department records to try to reach other former inmates. The majority of those who qualify will receive at least $50 and at most $5,000 in compensation.

How much they receive will depend on several factors including the length of their detention and whether they were strip-searched. Lawyers said they will try to contact former inmates through mail, advertisements and a Web site.

Los Angeles is not the first municipality to have to pay out a large sum over what were determined to be illegal strip-searches. In January, New York City officials said they expected to pay up to $50 million to 60,000 people to settle a lawsuit over strip-searches in jails during 1996 and 1997.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys who worked on the case, along with Litt and Mann, were John Burton, co-lead counsel with Litt, Donald Cook of Mann & Cook, Tim Midgley of Manes & Watson, Mary Anna Henley, Miguel Garcia and Robert Most.

Representing the county was the firm Franscell, Strickland and Roberts.