By Barb Stanton
San Bernardino County has lost another costly lawsuit to the tune of approximately $25.5 million after a class-action civil lawsuit against the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s department was finalized in a settlement by a federal court. The lawsuit alleged that thousands of strip searches at San Bernardino County jails humiliated inmates.
U.S. District Court Judge Stephen G. Larson signed a tentative agreement in late 2007. Judge Larson’s ruling has been approved by a federal court this month, and remained virtually unchanged.
Judge Larson wrote an extremely critical 15-page ruling, which said the sheriff’s department had failed to provide any solid reasons for strip searching the inmates. Larson wrote, “The intrusive nature of the search is beyond dispute, and the place and manner in which it is conducted does very little to protect the arrestees’ privacy.”
According to the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, Barry Litt from the firm of, Litt, Estuar, Harrison & Kitson, as many as 160,000 jail inmates were eligible to participate in the suit. If 160,000 ‘plaintiffs’ participate the settlement would amount to about $159 each – if the lawyers worked for free. Litt predicted that fewer than 160,000 will be able to prove that they were strip-searched illegally. And estimated that the final amount per plaintiff will be in the neighborhood of $200.
Ultimately the suit against San Bernardino County represents approximately 21,000 class-action members who will receive between $350 to $1,500 each.
Attorney Litt indicated that Judge Larson is expected to sign the finalized agreement at anytime.
Litt also has indicated that a judge would decide attorney fees at a final settlement conference but indicated that he expects to be awarded 25 percent. The attorney fees would be subtracted from the $25.5 million settlement.
The suit claims that while in custody in San Bernardino County jails inmates were strip-searched in an abusive manner. Strip-searching virtually everyone, and in groups, that allowed inmates no privacy, or dignity. Full body cavity searches for nearly all inmates entering its jails, even those who were returning from court or being transferred from other detention facilities.
The strip-searches and body-cavity searches were preformed, on occasion, in view of jail visitors and law enforcement officers of the opposite sex, with little regard for modesty. According to Attorney Barry Litt.
According to printed reports from writer, John F. Berry of the Riverside Press Enterprise, who spoke with Attorney Barry Litt, “Both men and women were often body-cavity searched in areas that could be viewed by anyone nearby, including…officers of the opposite sex and even visitors,” said lead attorney Barry Litt. “Female officers were heard to laugh that they had had their ‘thrill for the day.’ ”
The complaints state the searches were performed over 4 ½ years beginning in May 2003 at West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga and Central Detention Center in San Bernardino.
The suit also claimed the searches were performed on inmates in groups and showed no difference between the severity of the criminal offense. Also, a major point of the case was the county’s policy of strip-searching inmates who returned from court with a judge’s order that they be released.
County spokesman David Wert explained, “In a public courthouse, it’s possible that any inmate-defendant may find a way to acquire drugs, weapons and other contraband.” Inmates with release orders were considered security threats because they had to return to jail for administrative processing and rode the same jail buses as inmates who were scheduled to remain in jail.
Wert went on to explain that now inmates with release orders are kept separate from other inmates so that they no longer have to be strip-searched at the jail prior to their release.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff says the policy was intended to keep inmates from smuggling weapons, drugs and other contraband into jails. The department had a blanket policy of conducting full body cavity searches for nearly all inmates entering its jails.
The County and the Sheriff’s Department has denied that jailers have acted wrongly, saying the searches were aimed at ensuring jail security .Strip-searching is a key security measure meant to keep law enforcement officers and inmates safe, according to County authorities.
San Bernardino County taxpayers will be hit hard in the wallet, and other counties are served notice to refrain from strip searches without adequate reasonable cause, which, according to Litt violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.
Since the filing of the lawsuit San Bernardino County does not conduct searches in masse or when members of the opposite gender are present, staff or civilian. Strip searches are performed only on inmates who have been arrested on drug charges or weapons charges, or there is other reasonable suspicion that they may be likely to smuggle contraband, according to county officials.
Inmates with release orders are kept separate from other inmates so that they no longer have to be strip-searched at the jail prior to their release.
Sgt. Rick Ells said, “Although it seems bizarre to you and me, drugs and weapons are smuggled into jails and prisons in underwear and in the rectum. Ells went on to say, “In an effort to control that and to make the jail safer these strip searches were conducted to try to get contraband.”
“ They weren’t done to demean – or humiliate anyone,” Ells concluded.
San Bernardino County Supervisors voted in closed session to authorize county attorneys to make the proposal and were not required to disclose the action under California’s open-meeting law, according to county official.
According to officials from San Bernardino County the Board of Supervisors didn’t report the vote, because they were in closed session. Spokesman, David Wert explained, “Under the rules of the ‘Brown Act’ they do not have to disclose the actions taken.” Although county officials have confirmed the Supervisors vote to approve the $25.5 million settlement. This ‘closed door’ decision was made in September 2007.
The County, by agreeing to settle the case, say they have avoided the risk of losing an even larger amount of money if a jury decides against it.
According to county spokesman David Wert, the vast majority of the settlement money would be paid by insurance companies – $25 million and the remaining $500,000 will be paid by the county.
Questions to Spokesman for San Bernardino County David Wert this week:
When asked, how does the County know the insurance company is going to pay this amount, Wert explained, “That’s how much the County is insured for, for this type of litigation. The County has various insurance policies. Some of these policies are through the California State Association of Counties. The County has insurance to cover the County in the event it is sued for various purposes. Wert went on to say, “In this particular instance we have insurance that will cover $25 million of the $25.5 million.
Would the policy premium be effected in the future? Wert said, “Probably not because these policies are so huge and there are so many counties that contribute to them that really San Bernardino Counties payout is not all that much in the grand scheme of these policies.”
How much would you say it cost the County to fight this? Good question – I can get that answer for you.
Has Judge Larson signed off on this suit? “I believe all the judges have signed off and it is final although I have not gotten word that it is and I can certainly check on that,” Wert stated.
Has San Bernardino County released any press releases on this issue? The County did not release any press releases on this matter.
I believe that all citizens should be treated fairly and with dignity. We must never become so hardened that we ‘assume’ anyone is guilty until they have their day in court…and we should not take the dignity away from human beings…Our jails must maintain a balance between the sheriff’s need to maintain institutional security and the personal dignity of the people who are in the system.
Source: The Barb Stanton Show