A federal judge Wednesday punctuated a lengthy legal battle over strip searches at the Nassau County jail by concluding that the county must pay at least $500 apiece to an estimated 20,000 people subjected to the procedure after misdemeanor arrests.
U.S. District Judge Denis Hurley of Central Islip said individuals may be able to win additional "special damages" for personal humiliation and emotional distress, but the $500-per-capita "general damages" award would compensate the injury to the "dignity" of everyone unconstitutionally searched from 1996 to 1999.
"Each class member suffered the same injury to human dignity inherent in the loss of the right to determine which individual or individuals may visually inspect that member's naked body, particularly his or her sexual organs, and under what circumstances," he wrote in the 66-page ruling.
The jail's policy of strip-searching everyone - which officials said was designed to keep contraband out of the jail - ended in 1999 when a judge ruled it was unconstitutionally intrusive to force people accused of misdemeanors to expose their private parts without some cause to suspect they were hiding something.
The damages suit was instituted in 1999. The county conceded that the searches were unconstitutional. In 2008, an appeals court ruled that victims - despite differences in their individual cases - could pursue the case in a class action, instead of following the more difficult route of individual lawsuits.
Hurley conducted hearings, taking testimony from victims and correction officers, and visited the jail in East Meadow last year. The county argued for "nominal" damages, mentioning $200 per person in filings, and the plaintiffs said the violations were worth as much as $10,000 for each search.
Plaintiffs' lawyer Robert Herbst said he was looking forward to the next phase of the case, when the judge will consider additional categories of damage.
"It leaves for another day all damages for shame, humiliation, embarrassment and emotional distress," Herbst said.
"While we're a bit disappointed about the amount he came up with for the affront to human dignity, it's clear from the opinion that a jury in the next phase of the case could properly award an amount significantly higher."
County Attorney John Ciampoli said the decision to award general damages for an affront to dignity was "unprecedented" and said damages could rise to $11.5 million - an "unacceptable" amount. He said an appeal was being considered.
The judge found Wednesday that the searches - imposed on a population of misdemeanor prisoners that was 85 percent male - were always conducted by same-gender officers, didn't involve touching, and required prisoners to be naked for only 30 to 45 seconds - but did require them to spread their buttocks.
The judge said that awards of general damages for constitutional violations, separate from specific injuries to individuals, were rare, and assigning a value was "uncharted territory," but he rejected the county's call for only a small award.
"It is hard to believe that the grievous affront to human dignity occasioned by being subjected to an unlawful visual body cavity search would not warrant an award considerably in excess of nominal damages," Hurley wrote.
The judge set an Oct. 1 hearing date for the next phase. His decision indicated a jury will help determine additional damages, but it's unclear whether there will be one trial, sample trials or many individual trials.