Two months after officials agreed to pay up to $15 million to settle a lawsuit over illegal strip searches at the Sacramento County jail, the county's Probation Department has been sued over similar searches at juvenile hall.
Attorney Mark Merin, the same lawyer who won the settlement against the jail, filed the lawsuit Tuesday in federal court on behalf of a 15-year-old girl, who was arrested twice, once for shoplifting and another time for making a false emergency call. The suit alleges the same type of searches are being conducted on every suspect taken to juvenile hall.
Juvenile suspects, even those suspected of minor offenses, are taken into a shower room at the center on Kiefer Boulevard and subjected to visual body cavity searches before they appear for detention hearings, the lawsuit alleges.
"If this practice is pervasive, as I'm reliably informed it is, it's amazing to me the Probation Department has learned nothing from the experience of the Sheriff's Department," Merin said. "Maybe they don't talk to one another."
Reached late Tuesday, attorney Terence Cassidy, who represents the county, said: "We've not had an opportunity to investigate the specific facts and circumstances involving Mr. Merin's client.
"However, upon initial review, we believe the policy at juvenile hall on strip searches is in accord with all state and federal laws."
Cassidy said Merin submitted a Public Records Act request to the county for the policy and "we are in the process of complying with that request."
"I am frankly surprised that Mr. Merin would file a federal lawsuit without having first reviewed the policy," he added.
The suit names the county, the Probation Department, Chief Probation Officer Verne Speirs and Assistant Chief Suzanne Collins. Speirs' office said he and Collins were unavailable Tuesday afternoon. Neither responded to requests for comment. Steve DeRoss, the other assistant chief, could not be reached.
Merin won a settlement in June that could cost the county as much as $15 million over illegal strip searches of inmates coming into the county jail.
Sheriff Lou Blanas defended the practice of searching adults held on minor offenses, but the department agreed to settle and change its policy rather than continue to fight the case in court.
Merin, who has filed similar suits in other counties in California as well as in Miami, said the practice at juvenile hall is even more objectionable, in part because state law prohibits such searches of juveniles suspected of misdemeanors and infractions unrelated to violence, drugs or weapons.
"If anything, it's more offensive than doing it to adults," Merin said. "The state statute clearly applies to juveniles."
The suit was filed on behalf of a girl who was 13 years old when she was arrested in June 2002, and again in October 2002, on misdemeanor charges.
The plaintiff is not being named by The Bee because she is a juvenile.
Merin said state law specifically forbids strip searches of juveniles held on minor offenses unless there is a "reasonable suspicion" that contraband is being concealed. The law is silent on felonies.
Federal law prohibits such searches of juveniles even if they are accused of felonies, again except for charges involving violence, drugs or weapons, he said.
The suit seeks $4,000 for each juvenile subjected to such a search, plus $1,000 in attorney's fees for each instance.
Merin said there is no way to know how many juveniles have been subjected to such searches, but there could easily be thousands of potential plaintiffs.
The statute of limitations in juvenile cases is two years, but only starts to run after the person turns 18, Merin said. So, for instance, if a 10-year-old was strip searched at the hall "the county is looking at a 10-year statute of limitations," Merin said.
The lawsuit settled by the county over Blanas' strip search policies may end up covering 16,000 people, and that settlement provided for payments ranging from $1,000 to $3,500 to each class member, depending on whether they were subjected to verbal or other abuse, and how much.
That settlement, which provides for a $3 million fee for Merin, is the largest of its kind in county history.
The Bee's Denny Walsh can be reached at (916) 321-1189 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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