Thousands could sue over strip searches

Class action status granted in Central Booking lawsuit

March 23, 2009|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

A federal judge has granted class action status to two categories of people in a civil suit that claims officers at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center regularly and illegally detained certain arrestees too long and strip-searched people without cause.

The ruling, issued Thursday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, opens the door for tens of thousands of people processed from May 2002 through April 2008 to join the suit, which seeks unspecified monetary damages. Central booking processes everyone arrested within city limits.

Class action status means "everything" to the success of the case, attorney William Claiborne said.

"Most of these cases are difficult to try. It's difficult for an individual to get a lawyer, it's difficult for an individual to persuade a jury that he's telling the truth," he said. "But when you have 50 or 60 or 100,000 people coming in, it changes the balance, it really changes the balance of power. It's like having a union."

Lawyers at the Maryland attorney general's office, which represents officials at the intake facility, were reviewing the opinion Friday and were unable to comment. Central Booking officials have denied any wrongdoing in court papers.

Strip searches are supposed to take place only under certain circumstances, yet Claiborne's case is one of a growing number of federal lawsuits alleging that unconstitutional strip searches by Maryland law enforcement officials are routine. A Baltimore man recently filed a civil suit alleging that a city police officer cavity-searched him on the sidewalk without cause, and a group of young women are suing Harford County officers with similar allegations.

This month, state Sen. James Brochin of Baltimore County filed a bill that offers specific strip-search guidelines in response to a Baltimore Sun article that related the experience of Rosemary Munyiri, a nurse who was arrested and strip-searched at Central Booking after a traffic stop.

The bill would prohibit officers from conducting strip searches on people arrested under certain circumstances or for certain minor offenses, allowing exceptions "if the officer has a reasonable suspicion" that certain contraband is being concealed, as the Maryland Court of Special Appeals has deemed appropriate. The bill would also establish rules for strip-search procedure.

A hearing on the bill is scheduled before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee tomorrow.

The suit Claiborne and his co-counsel filed began with nine people who claim they were treated improperly at Central Booking. They sought class action categories for:

* Those detained for more than 48 hours without having been brought before a commissioner, which is prohibited.

* People arrested for minor, nondrug, nonviolent offenses and strip-searched before they were brought before a commissioner.

* Those who weren't strip-searched privately.

* And male arrestees who were searched to their underwear when female detainees were not.

The latter two categories were denied class action status by U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake.

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