Daily Journal Staff
LOS ANGELES - The county Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved paying
$27 million to settle five class actions in which former inmates claim
county sheriff's deputies illegally strip-searched, detained and
arrested them using warrants that listed someone else's name.
The settlement was the
largest in a civil rights case in the county's history, County Counsel
Lloyd Pelman said.
Since 1996, the suits
allege, as many as 600,000 former prisoners were subject to a variety
of illegal practices by the county Sheriff's Department.
saves the taxpayer the expense of housing people who should be free,
gets people out quickly without being searched, ends the county
exposure to claims like these in the future and resolves the current
claims at substantially less than they might have cost after a
trial," Barry Litt, a lead attorney in the cases, said Tuesday.
In one case, James E.
Johnson was arrested in 1997 on suspicion of robbery and elder abuse,
but even after sheriff's deputies knew that no charges would be filed
against him, he was subject to a body-cavity search in front of
deputies and other inmates. Johnson
v. County of Los Angeles,BC213059 (L.A. Super. Ct.).
"Our clients were
people who were ordered released and, notwithstanding that release
order, were searched," Donald W. Cook, another of the team of
attorneys working on the cases, said.
According to the terms
of the settlement, which the judges hearing the various cases must
approve, the Sheriff's Department also must adhere to policies to
prevent unlawful searches, detentions or wrongful arrests.
Among those, the
department must release an inmate on completion of his or her sentence
within eight hours of entering release information into the Sheriff's
Department computer system.
Sheriffs also must
allow prisoners who are released at the courthouse to leave without
being subjected to a strip-search. And if an inmate complains that he
or she is not the person named in a warrant, sheriffs must use
fingerprints and other information to try to verify the person's
Stephen R. Whitmore said the department is adhering to new policies.
"Persons who must
return to jail before they are released are no longer strip-searched,
and they are released within eight hours," Whitmore said.
Litt lauded the actions
that the department has taken.
"Thanks to the
prompt and comprehensive actions of Sheriff Baca, who inherited this practice,
most people are released directly from courthouses without having to
spend unnecessary time in custody and without having to undergo visual
inspection of their most intimate body parts," he said.
Approximately $21.5 of
the settlement will be used to pay claims and another $5.5 million to
pay attorney fees. Between $2 million and $3 million will be set aside
to pay for Sheriff's Department inmate programs and community-based
programs for those at-risk of being jailed.
The 62 named plaintiffs
in the five cases will be the first to get paid, splitting
approximately $750,000. After that, lawyers will use Sheriff's
Department records to try to reach other former inmates. The majority
of those who qualify will receive at least $50 and at most $5,000 in
How much they receive
will depend on several factors including the length of their detention
and whether they were strip-searched. Lawyers said they will try to
contact former inmates through mail, advertisements and a Web site.
Los Angeles is not the
first municipality to have to pay out a large sum over what were
determined to be illegal strip-searches. In January, New York City
officials said they expected to pay up to $50 million to 60,000 people
to settle a lawsuit over strip-searches in jails during 1996 and 1997.
attorneys who worked on the case, along with Litt and Mann, were John
Burton, co-lead counsel with Litt, Donald Cook of Mann & Cook, Tim
Midgley of Manes & Watson, Mary Anna Henley, Miguel Garcia and
Representing the county
was the firm Franscell, Strickland and Roberts.