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SACRAMENTO — Four years ago, Sacramento attorney Mark Merin stumbled on an issue affecting thousands of Californians: the right to avoid strip searches when arrested for routine, nonviolent offenses. Just last week, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge approved a multimillion-dollar settlement over visual strip searches affecting more than 4,000 people who were taken into custody between March 2000 and June 2003. Billed as the largest such settlement in Sacramento County history, the deal could be worth as much as $15 million, with a $3 million fee for Merin, who has worked on the case for four years. He’s filed similar class actions in San Francisco and Northern District federal court, and has said he will file claims on behalf of juveniles held in youth facilities in San Mateo and Solano counties. “Once you’re in a situation where you have one group of people asserting control over another, it leads to abuse and dehumanization,” said Merin. “Nudity is just stock and trade of such an institution.” Terence Cassidy, of Sacramento’s Porter, Scott, Weiberg & Delehant, represented the county. He said the sheriff’s department believes that the penal code allows for searches if inmates are going to be released into the general population. “This type of case started on the East Coast, and it became the darling suit of the plaintiff attorneys because of the potential for significant amounts of attorneys fees,” Cassidy said. “Ultimately, I think courts — as penal institutions create records of the types of drugs and weapons people try to bring into jail — may even revisit this issue from a security standpoint, and perhaps ultimately determine that for security reasons, those searches are appropriate.” A 30-year veteran of civil rights law, Merin first became aware of routine strip searches in Sacramento County four years ago, when a protester at a Board of Forestry meeting found herself arrested, taken into custody by Sacramento County law enforcement officials and ordered to strip. The woman refused to comply with the order, and was about to be forced to disrobe when she was ordered released, said Merin. In talking with compatriots, the detainee realized that strip-searching was a common practice in Sacramento County, despite state and federal regulations prohibiting such searches for minor crimes not involving drugs or weapons, unless authorities have reason to believe the detainee may be smuggling weapons or drugs into jail. She brought the matter to the attention of Merin, who filed suit. At first, Sacramento County officials fought the suit, but they changed county policy when a Sacramento County Superior Court judge in January 2003 ruled that detainees could win damages. The Sacramento County searches were particularly humiliating, said Merin, because they sometimes involved simultaneous searches of multiple detainees in rooms with windows where nonparticipants could view the proceedings. “It was pretty appalling,” Merin said. As word of the strip-search challenge got around, Merin says, “Other people in Sacramento and elsewhere” started contacting him, leading to other suits. The San Francisco class covers people detained on minor charges and strip-searched from April 2002 to Jan. 21, 2004, when San Francisco also officially changed its policy to exclude strip searches for minor crimes. The federal case, arising out of Contra Costa County, was filed last week on behalf of Rosalety Barnett, who was sleeping in her car in Lafayette in March of this year when she was taken to jail and subjected to a strip search. Her suit alleges violations of privacy rights under state and federal law. She is seeking damages of at least $5,000 for detainees similarly searched in the past two years. Merin has several theories about why illegal strip searches continue, despite the passage of 1984 state legislation designed to bring California into compliance with federal guidelines banning routine strip searches and those conducted without adequate privacy safeguards. “I think partly it’s ignorance, or it’s bad advice,” said Merin. “The people who should be surveying the practice at the jails are just either not aware what’s going on or not aware what the law is. But in any event, they allow people at a fairly low level to make these decisions. The result is practices that have nothing to do with the requirements of the law.” In Sacramento, county officials have filed a claim with the state Board of Corrections, alleging that the state certified the jail’s strip-search procedures. “I don’t think the state is going to say they signed off,” Merin predicted. “They’re responsible for the physical facilities, not policy and treatment.” Many members of the class actions are homeless people brought in on a variety of charges. Merin said he has been working with Loaves & Fishes, a Sacramento-based homeless services organization, to make sure the people entitled to settlement funds actually receive their money. Class members will receive between $1,000 and $25,000 for the illegal strip searches. Merin says his $3 million fee isn’t unreasonable given the time he invested in the case. “The whole office has been mobilized for four years,” with no guarantee of prevailing, he said. “That’s what civil rights lawyers do,” Merin said. “You take an issue that you really believe in and try to effect change.”

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