administration has agreed to pay up to $50 million to
settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of tens of thousands of people who
were illegally strip-searched after being arrested for minor offenses, many
of which fell under the city's crackdown on quality of life violations.
were conducted by jail guards in Manhattan and Queens
during 10 months in 1996 and 1997. Many of the victims of the illegal
searches were first-time offenders who were arrested for minor
infractions like loitering, disorderly conduct or subway offenses.
The $50 million
class action settlement could be paid out to more than
50,000 people who were arrested during the 10 months. The lawsuit
recounts several cases of men and women with no arrest record who
said they felt humiliated as they were ordered to disrobe, lift their breasts
or genitals for visual inspections, and to squat and cough.
The minimum award
will be $250, the maximum $22,500, though
individual plaintiffs can appeal if they think they deserve a higher award
based on their emotional suffering. A plaintiff who spent thousands of
dollars on psychiatric care in the aftermath of a strip-search could seek
additional damages to cover the fees, for example.
All told, the
settlement would be the largest in a civil rights suit against
New York City, lawyers said, and appears to be one of the largest civil
rights settlements against a municipality anywhere.
which is subject to approval by Judge John S. Martin Jr.
of Federal District Court in Manhattan, and has not yet been announced,
comes after two years of negotiations over how to compensate such a
huge pool of victims.
The deal includes
a novel formula that seeks to tailor awards to the
circumstances of each search and the resulting emotional impact. Both
sides agreed that some victims had suffered more and therefore deserved
more, like first-time offenders or those who endured abusive conduct by
jail guards, or women who were menstruating.
But for others,
the psychological impact may have been less. For
example, the settlement reduces the probability of larger awards for
people who previously served time in prison, where strip-searches are
routine. This part of the settlement would seem to address concerns that
serious criminals or people who did not suffer psychological injury could
The city's Department
of Correction has said that it adopted the policy of
strip-searching all people arrested on minor charges "for security
purposes." But a federal appeals court had ruled in 1986 that the Fourth
Amendment barred strip- searches of people charged with
misdemeanors or other minor offenses unless there was reasonable
suspicion that weapons or contraband were concealed.
"This is a precedent-setting
settlement," said Richard D. Emery, the lead
lawyer for the plaintiffs, "because it recognizes the degrading and
dehumanizing aspects of a strip- search, and attempts to mold
compensation to the individual circumstances of each victim of the city's
He added that
given the large numbers of victims involved, the sliding
scale formula for damage awards, which adds or subtracts points
depending on the circumstances of the search and on whether a plaintiff
has a criminal record, was the best resolution to the case.