San Francisco reaches settlement over jail strip search lawsuit 

click to enlarge In Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, the court ruled it was permissible for jails to conduct routine strip searches of new inmates.
  • In Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, the court ruled it was permissible for jails to conduct routine strip searches of new inmates.

San Francisco is on the verge of settling for $465,000 a lawsuit filed 10 years ago in federal court over strip searches conducted by the Sheriff’s Department.

Political activist Mary Bull filed the lawsuit after she was arrested, along with other anti-war demonstrators, on Market Street in November 2002. She was charged with vandalism. Bull repeatedly refused to sign consent forms for a strip search.

She was then forced into a cold room and made to undergo a visual body cavity search and left alone for 24 hours without clothes, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

At the time, then-Sheriff Michael Hennessey had imposed a policy of strip-searching every arrestee as a means to thwart contraband smuggling into jails.

Facing the lawsuit, he changed the policy in January 2004 to permit deputies to strip-search only those who they believed to be carrying contraband. The Sheriff’s Department said the 2004 policy remains in place.

In recent years, legal wrangling over strip searches has played out in municipalities nationwide. In 2010, a $55.3 million legal settlement was reached in a Chicago lawsuit over jail strip searches, prompting a policy change there.

But those who advocate for privacy rights and oppose strip searches for minor offenses were dealt a blow by an April U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

In Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, the court ruled it was permissible for jails to conduct routine strip searches of new inmates.

In that case, Albert Florence was stopped by a New Jersey state trooper and arrested on an outstanding warrant, which turned out to have been issued in error for a fine he had already paid. Florence was arrested, jailed and strip-searched.

San Francisco was potentially facing a much larger payout. Bull’s attorney Mark Merin was initially seeking a class-action lawsuit that could have resulted in multimillion-dollar judgments. But the case was hurt in 2010 when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the strip-search policy was legal.

The settlement agreement is now pending approval by the Board of Supervisors.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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