$2.99M deal brokered in NM strip search lawsuit

Proposed settlement covers Santa Rosa jail, 5 others in 3 states

By Scott Sandlin
The Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Lawyers in a class action lawsuit involving strip searches of pretrial detainees at six jails, including one in Santa Rosa, N.M., have announced a proposed settlement with prison operator GEO Group Inc.

A Pennsylvania law firm, Chimicles & Tikellis, negotiated a $2.99 million settlement, excluding legal fees - up to $400 for all eligible class members - after a federal judge refused to dismiss the case.

The settlement covers GEO-run correctional facilities in Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Mexico.

The settlement for the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa covers the period from Jan. 30, 2005, to Jan. 30, 2008.

Class members may be eligible if they entered the GEO-operated facility after being charged with minor crimes that did not involve drugs, weapons or violence, if they have no past criminal history or charges, and did not behave in a way at intake that would give officers grounds for such a search.

The lawsuit alleging constitutional violations was filed in 2006 against GEO, a Florida corporation, over strip searches allegedly conducted regardless of whether there was reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe the person had weapons or contraband. The class representatives included a woman in a pretrial diversion program for a DUI arrest who was taken to a room with other female weekend inmates and strip-searched in front of the inmates, and a man who mistakenly failed to appear for a scheduled court date resulting from a domestic dispute and was strip-searched.

The settlement does not include individuals who were convicted at the time that they were admitted to the facility.

The GEO settlement is one of a half-dozen class actions against county jails in New Mexico based on a blanket policy to strip-search individuals. 

A 2006 class action complaint was filed against Management and Training Corp., which managed the Santa Fe County jail, on behalf of an estimated 13,000 inmates. Similar lawsuits were filed against Cornell Companies, for individuals detained at the Doña Ana County jail, and the Valencia County jail.

Bob Rothstein, whose Santa Fe-based firm filed five of the strip-search lawsuits, said thousands of individuals were paid claims in the settlement of the cases.

He said a memo surfaced after the first one was filed in Santa Fe. It was from the New Mexico Association of Counties, warning counties to review their strip-search policies to prevent the kind of litigation Santa Fe was then facing.

"They didn't," he said.

Copyright 2010 Albuquerque Journal


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