In the largest settlement in the history of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, officials agreed Friday to pay up to $15 million to resolve lawsuits over strip searches at the county jail.
The agreement, which will cost the cash-strapped county $2 million and two of its insurance carriers $13 million, could affect more than 16,000 people strip-searched at the jail between March 14, 2000, and June 6, 2003.
"This practice was ruled unconstitutional as early as 1984, yet there seemed to be no attempt to conform to the law," said attorney Mark Merin, who filed the suits. "People were stripped naked and dehumanized before arraignment. It was standard procedure."
The settlement, which still must be approved by the court, stems from state and federal lawsuits Merin filed after six environmental demonstrators were arrested at the state Forestry Board office on March 14, 2000, and jailed on misdemeanor charges.
All six were subjected to visual body-cavity searches - commonly called strip searches - as part of the booking process, and were searched in front of each other.
It was later discovered that such searches were routinely videotaped, a practice which has been discontinued.
Those protesters and a seventh plaintiff who had been jailed on a misdemeanor battery charge filed a suit naming the county and Sheriff Lou Blanas as defendants, saying such searches were grossly inappropriate for people accused of minor crimes.
"Things that happen in jail have gone largely uninvestigated," Merin said. "It was only because these political activists got caught up in the system that we were able to take a look at this nightmare."
The Sheriff's Department fought the suit vigorously, accusing Merin of seeking to line his own pockets and noting that most counties in the state used such searches to ensure that weapons and other contraband are not smuggled into jails.
"Our number one concern has been the safety of the institution, the safety of the officers and even the safety of the inmates themselves," said David Lind, a department chief deputy and attorney, in an interview Friday.
But the department's efforts to fight the suit began to unravel in January 2003, when Sacramento Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Cecil ruled that people jailed on minor charges and strip-searched over a four-year period were entitled to $1,000 each.
The ruling stunned sheriff's officials, who changed their strip-search policies later that month.
Under the new policy, only prisoners being booked on charges involving violence, weapons or drugs may be subjected to visual body-cavity searches, and those searches must be conducted out of sight of other inmates and arrestees.
Two months after Cecil's ruling, Merin followed up with a more sweeping suit in U.S. District Court, and the agreement revealed Friday will settle both cases.
The agreement still must be approved by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Richard Park, and creates a multi-tiered system of payments to each person ranging from $1,000 on up.
People who were under 21 or over 60, for instance, or women who were pregnant when searched, could receive up to $3,500.
The settlement also indicates some of the searches involved humiliating tactics: It provides extra payments for people who were forced to jump or dance during the searches or who were subjected to "nasty jokes."
Higher awards can be made for inmates who sought therapy afterward or for other special cases.
The seven original plaintiffs will split $410,000 from a fund of $11.5 million set aside for payments to class members.
Another $3 million will go to Merin, and $500,000 will be set aside to pay the administrative costs of the claims process.
The settlement calls for the county to pay $2 million of the total.
County officials already have filed a claim for $2 million with the state Board of Corrections, saying the board certified the jail's strip-search procedures biannually for decades.
"This whole thing was a good-faith error of policy," Lind said.
The board did not respond to a request for comment.
The deal is believed to be by far the highest payout by the department to dispose of a legal challenge.
The next-highest that officials could recall was an $850,000 settlement involving misuse of the department's "prostraint chair," a device designed to subdue unruly prisoners.
The original strip-search suit resulted in many counties statewide changing their policies to reflect Cecil's ruling that only arrestees accused of crimes involving drugs, weapons or violence could be strip-searched.
In the Sacramento County jail, officials now use metal detectors to ensure that weapons are not being smuggled in, but Lind said he is certain that drugs and other forbidden items are making their way into the jail.
"We are confident that there's more contraband coming into the jail, unfortunately, of a non-metal nature," Lind said.
Final approval of the deal is scheduled for mid-October, following distribution of claim forms to as many affected individuals as can be located. The county will run newspaper ads notifying people they may be eligible for payment.
Merin estimated that as few as one out of four people eligible may seek payments.
Meanwhile, he is pursuing similar lawsuits in San Francisco and San Mateo County, and soon will file in Marin County.
He also is suing Dade County, Fla., for strip searches of women protesters at a world trade conference.
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