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Ex-Inmates Get $3M for Jailhouse Strip-Searches

PITTSBURGH (CN) - A federal judge approved a $3 million settlement for a class that claimed the Allegheny County Jail performed unconstitutional strip-searches on all incoming pre-trial detainees.

In an amended 2007 class action against Allegheny and jail officials, named plaintiffs Harry Delandro and Karen Murphy said they sustained unconstitutional strip-searches after being charged with nonfelony crimes.

Prior to March 18, 2008, the Allegheny County Jail "had a policy and practice of strip searching all individuals entering ACJ who were placed in jail clothing, regardless of their criminal charge and without reasonable suspicion to believe they were concealing a weapon or contraband," according to a 37-page opinion and order filed Tuesday.

Delandro claimed he was strip-searched multiple times after being arrested in April 2006 for allegedly failing to pay child support.

Murphy said she received similar treatment after an August 2005 arrest on misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and harassment.

The pair won a preliminary injunction in March 2008, when a judge enjoined the defendants "from illegally strip-searching all pretrial detainees entering custody at ACJ in the absence of individualized reasonable suspicion," U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry noted in Tuesday's opinion.

In April 2009, following completion of discovery, Delandro and Murphy filed a motion for partial summary judgment on their claim that the strip-search policy was unconstitutional.

"In support of their motion, plaintiffs produced deposition testimony which confirmed that during the class period, defendants maintained a practice of conducting blanket strip and visual cavity searches on all pretrial detainees who were given a jail uniform and processed into the jail's general population without individualized reasonable suspicion that they possessed a weapon or contraband," McVerry wrote.

Defendants also sought summary judgment, arguing "that the search policy was justified by ACJ's need for security and safety ... [and] that the policy was necessary to prevent detainees from smuggling contraband into the jail," the judge summarized.

By December 2009, after dismissing the individual defendants from the case, the court granted the plaintiffs summary judgment as to the county's liability.

Under the settlement, Delandro and Murphy should each receive $18,000 for their efforts in prosecuting the litigation, McVerry ruled.

Each member of the class, which could exceed 12,000 individuals, are to receive no more than $3,000 apiece under the settlement.

Debates over the constitutionality of strip-search policies at prisons are not new to federal appeals courts. Because of dichotomy at this level, the Supreme Court agreed last month to rule on one case involving a blanket strip-search policy in Burlington County, N.J.

In its 1979 decision in Bell v. Wolfish, the Supreme Court established a balancing test to determine whether a prison's strip-search policy can be deemed reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, enumerating four factors for judges to weigh a facility's legitimate security needs against an inmate's privacy rights.

In Bell, the court found that a short-term, federal, custodial facility was not unreasonable in requiring all inmates to be strip-searched after making contact with an outside visitor.

Circuit courts "have interpreted Bell to require that a prison have reasonable suspicion that a particular arrestee is concealing weapons or other contraband before conducting a strip-search of that arrestee," McVerry wrote Tuesday. "Some of these courts have also concluded that Bell allows such reasonable suspicion to be established categorically for certain groups of prison detainees, such as those charged with felonies or violent or drug-related misdemeanors."

Recently, however, "the proverbial tide has turned with respect to suits challenging the constitutionality of such policies," he wrote.

Both the 11th Circuit in 2008 and the 9th Circuit in 2010 said it was constitutional for Georgia's Fulton County Jail and the San Francisco Sheriff's Department, respectively, to enforce a blanket strip-search policy for all incoming arrestees - even in the absence of reasonable suspicion to believe they were hiding contraband. The 3rd Circuit joined that trend last year with the ruling that is now on its way to the Supreme Court.

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