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Sheriff's department plans to appeal strip-search ruling

Friday, August 14, 2009
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Pat Milhizer

The Cook County sheriff's department plans to appeal a jury's finding that its jail officers subjected inmates to cruel, unreasonable and discriminatory strip searches over a two-year period.

The verdict comes just six months after a federal judge said that the unconstitutional practice dates back to the beginning of 2004.

"Strip searches are a common practice at every jail and prison in the U.S. and because of that and federal appellate rulings we've seen, we believe this case is ripe for appeal," department spokesman Steve Patterson said in a statement.

"Based upon testimony and facts in the case, we believe the jail's correctional officers and staff acted appropriately and did not violate anyone's constitutional rights in conducting searches for weapons or contraband before placing them into jail custody," Patterson said.

On Thursday, a jury found the department guilty of misconduct based on accusations in a class-action suit that employees used sexually degrading language and inappropriately touched the genitals of male arrestees during the searches. The department was accused of conducting searches in open hallways that had vomit and feces on the floors.

In addition, the lawsuit alleged that some arrestees were beaten.

Attorneys representing the class say that they will seek a trial to determine damages for about 500,000 illegal strip searches conducted at the jail over two years.

The jury's ruling follows U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Kennelly's decision in February of this year to grant summary judgment to the plaintiffs on claims that inmates were needlessly humiliated during searches that occurred from January 2004 to February 2007, the plaintiffs' attorneys said. Thursday's jury decision considered allegations that the unconstitutional searches continued from February 2007 to March 2009.

In response to the verdict, the sheriff's department said that Sheriff Thomas J. Dart installed body-scanning machines in the jail in August 2007, which started an initiative to eliminate strip searches. After the County Board approved funding for more machines, the entire jail complex began using them in March.

Now the department only conducts strip searches when an officer has "significant probable cause" to believe that an arrestee has contraband or a weapon, Patterson said.

"Of course," Patterson said, "the elimination of strip searching at the jail hasn't been without its problems, as earlier this year a Chicago man was able to smuggle a gun into the complex. That's why we remain confident in our practices and in our plans for appeal."

The class was represented by Michael Kanovitz, Roshna B. Keen and Samantha A. Liskow of Loevy & Loevy. They were assisted by attorneys Cindy Tsai and Julie M. Thompson.

The sheriff's department was represented by Assistant State's Attorney Francis J. Catania; and Daniel F. Gallagher, Larry S. Kowalczyk and Dominick L. Lanzito of Querrey & Harrow Ltd.

Kim Young, et al. v. County of Cook, et al., No. 06 C552.

pmilhizer@lbpc.com


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