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Nearly 18,000 sue Nassau for strip searches

A police recruit jogs around the Nassau County

A police recruit jogs around the Nassau County Jail. Credit: Newsday File Image

Greg Wills of Bay Shore, just one of 17,700 people suing Nassau County for unspecified damages after he was unconstitutionally strip-searched at the Nassau County jail, told a federal judge this week he was stunned when a correction officer said he had to strip and be searched.

"You've got to be kidding," Wills, who was arrested in July 1996 on a misdemeanor, said he told the correction officer who had given him the order.

"You're in jail now," the officer replied, Wills testified in federal court in Central Islip.

In the class-action civil rights case that could further undermine Nassau County's already strained budget, U.S. District Judge Denis Hurley is hearing the accounts of people who were strip-searched at the county jail after being arrested for minor offenses. The misdemeanors or other offenses in individual cases are not specified in court.

Hurley, who is hearing the case without a jury, ultimately will determine what damages are due the victims because of "injury to human dignity," according to court papers. In the trial, which is expected to continue next week, the judge already has heard the accounts of several people. Earlier this week, County Attorney Lorna Goodman said that significant damage awards in the class-action suit could cost the county "tens of millions of dollars."

Federal courts ruled in earlier action in the decade-old case that the 17,700 people were unconstitutionally strip-searched at the Nassau County Correctional Center in East Meadow between 1996 and 1999 after being arrested for misdemeanors or other, lesser crimes. Those people, the courts have ruled, are entitled to some sort of damages.

The county stopped the practice after a federal judge's ruling in 1999.

Deputy County Attorney Gerald Waters, in his cross-examination of Wills, suggested the search was minimally intrusive and lasted only a brief time.

But Manhattan lawyer Robert Herbst, the plaintiffs' lead attorney, disagrees with that view.

"A strip search where someone is buck-naked is one of the most degrading experiences a person can go through," he has said.

Nassau County Correction Officer Keith Jorgensen, who searched Wills, testified Thursday that the jail's standard strip-search procedure at the time was for officers to stand a few feet away from the person who had been arrested and not to touch him or her. The person then would be asked to take off their clothing, lift their arms over their head and "squat down like a baseball catcher," he said.

Jorgensen, under questioning by Deputy Nassau County Attorney Christine Sullivan, said when he conducted strip searches, he always stood a few feet away from the naked man. He said he asked the man to run his fingers through his hair and around his mouth - which would reveal possible contraband - if the person appeared "a little froggy," which he defined as "a little jumpy."

Ten people who were arrested for misdemeanors and strip-searched at the jail already settled suits with the county in 2005 for $35,000 each, before the courts allowed the 17,700 people to sue as a single class.

Judges have ruled it is permissible to strip-search people accused of felonies or other arrestees who might present an apparent danger.

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