Nassau counters payment sought in strip-search case

Attorneys for 17,700 people arrested for minor offenses and illegally strip-searched in the Nassau County jail in the late 1990s are asking the county to pay each of them $10,000, for a budget-busting total of $177 million, according to court papers filed this week in federal court in Central Islip.

County attorneys, in their papers, countered that the people who were illegally strip-searched are entitled to a much lesser amount - perhaps $200 each or less, for a total of no more than $3.5 million.

The papers - which took the place of closing arguments - were submitted late Wednesday in the long-running case that is before U.S. District Judge Denis Hurley. The judge is trying the suit without a jury.

Federal courts ruled earlier in the decade-old case that the 17,700 people were unconstitutionally strip-searched at the Nassau County Correctional Center between 1996 and 1999 after being arrested for misdemeanors or other, lesser crimes. The county stopped the practice after a federal judge's ruling in 1999.

Hurley, who heard testimony in the case last fall and toured the jail in East Meadow, has broken the determination of damages into two parts. In the first part, the judge said he would determine the amount of damages, if any, to award the entire group of people who were strip-searched based on a general loss of human dignity.

Subsequent legal action would determine any additional damages to individuals for factors such as pain and suffering, and mental anguish.

Robert Herbst, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said the plaintiffs presented a "compelling case" at trial last fall for requesting significant damages.

Those arrested, he said, "were subjected to the grossest invasion of privacy by government officials . . . fully naked . . . without any regard for privacy or dignity."

According to the plaintiffs' court papers, one former schoolteacher testified she was arrested for an unspecified charge in 1996 and taken to the county jail.

There, she testified, a female correction officer "tells me to take off every stitch of clothing that I have on, to bend over and have her search private areas of my body, where I'm standing there naked. It was the most humiliating and degrading thing that ever happened to me."

Nassau County Attorney John Ciampoli said Thursday that the county would appeal any award of damages.

Campioli also said that the county has decided to appeal any granting by the judge of any damages to the entire class, on the grounds that the judge's theory of the case is "unprecedented in U.S. law."

He also said the group may be smaller than 17,700 because several thousand people arrested on minor charges may have been bailed out before they were strip-searched.

The records of those people are in a trailer on the grounds of the jail that has been overgrown with mold because of a flood, he said. People recovering those records may have to wear hazardous-materials suits, Ciampoli said.

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