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Allegheny County to donate unclaimed money from strip-search settlement to Neighborhood Legal Services

| Saturday, April 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

More than $55,000 in unclaimed money from a class-action settlement that Allegheny County paid for illegally strip-searching people accused of minor crimes will be donated Monday to a Downtown nonprofit.

“Every penny counts,” said Christine Kirby, director of development for Neighborhood Legal Services Association, which provided free legal services to needy people. “It couldn't have come at a better time.”

The organization's budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year is $4.6 million, down from $5.5 million in 2010.

Twenty-five staff and several volunteer attorneys served 24,000 clients in 13,000 cases last year, Kirby said. The money from the settlement is equal to the annual salary of one staff attorney at the nonprofit.

“Whether the legal issues our clients face are housing, personal safety, are income or job-related, or deal with foreclosure issues, all of our clients are facing a loss of a basic life necessity,” she said. “We like to consider ourselves the last basic safety net — the last resort — for some people.”

The organization also provides free representation to the elderly and people filing Protection from Abuse orders, regardless of their income.

Allegheny County agreed to pay $3 million to plaintiffs who said strip searches at the jail violated their Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches.

Lawyers received $1 million and the rest was divided among the 1,300 people held for misdemeanor or summary offenses and strip-searched between July 2004 and March 2008, each of whom received a check for $1,000, said Rob Pierce, a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs.

About 55 people never cashed their checks, Pierce said.

Neighborhood Legal Services Association, which receives most of its funding through organizations like the Legal Services Corp., the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network and local fundraising and grants, has reduced its staff by 17 percent during the last three years, Kirby said.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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