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County agrees to pay $3 million to settle strip-search suit

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Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010

Allegheny County will pay $3 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that successfully challenged the constitutionality of strip-searching people jailed for minor offenses.

County solicitor Michael Wojcik said Monday the county agreed to settle the case because recent rulings in similar cases across the country favored plaintiffs.

"We're not too pleased with it, but it's better than going to trial and getting hit with a larger amount," Wojcik said.

Megan Dardanell, spokeswoman for County Executive Dan Onorato, said the proposed monetary settlement covering an estimated 12,600 people is comparable with those other Pennsylvania counties made.

Delaware County agreed to pay $2.9 million for about 10,000 people, Dauphin County agreed to $2.2 million for about 2,500 people, and Lancaster County agreed to $2.5 million for about 10,000 people, she said. Dauphin and Lancaster settled in 2009. Delaware County settled this year.

Chester, Lackawanna, Pike and Susquehanna have similar cases pending.

"We knew we were going to have to pay, so we tried to reach the best settlement we could," Dardanell said. "And compared to other counties, we think we did."

Rob Pierce, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, said the proposed settlement is fair.

"I believe that (the jail's) current policy is constitutional, and this lawsuit helped change the practice," he said.

University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said the county and plaintiffs faced "real risks of losing" at trial. Individual settlements are capped at $3,000, about average for this kind of case, Burkoff said.

"If there's a dollar recovery, that tends to be the range for a strip-search," he said. "It's an interesting and sensible settlement."

The jail strip-searched people held for misdemeanor or summary offenses because they might be incarcerated with people processed for felonies, violent misdemeanors or drug charges, Wojcik said. They could have carried in weapons or drugs for other people, either voluntarily or because the other person coerced them, he said.

The plaintiffs claimed that conducting searches without reasonable suspicion a person is carrying contraband violates the Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches.

Nine of 11 federal circuit courts of appeal have ruled routine strip-searches of people held on minor offenses are unconstitutional. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Pennsylvania, has not ruled on the issue.

U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry issued a preliminary injunction March 18, 2008, banning the practice. If he approves the settlement, the ban will become permanent.

"We believe the policy that existed before the lawsuit complied with the law, but the court didn't agree with us," Wojcik said.

The jail added scanning technology, including ion detectors, that make it harder for someone to sneak in weapons or drugs, Wojcik said. A scanner "hit" gives the jail probable cause to conduct a search, he said.

About $1 million of the settlement goes to the plaintiffs' lawyers. The rest of the money will be divided among people who were unconstitutionally strip-searched between July 2004 and March 2008.

If the judge approves the settlement, the county will send notices to people it believes are eligible for money and set up a website with the settlement's details. Any money left over would be donated to Neighborhood Legal Services, a nonprofit group that provides legal services to the poor.

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