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Sacramento, Calif.-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. A Sacramento County Superior Court judge recently 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 in Northern District of California 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.” The ‘darling suit’ Terence Cassidy of Sacramento’s Porter, Scott, Weiberg & Delehant, who represented the county, 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 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.

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