Some 14,000 inmates were illegally strip-searched in Burlington County. Their court case settles for $2.4 million

Lawyers have settled a class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of inmates who were illegally strip-searched at Burlington County correctional facilities between 2004 and 2012, a period during which everyone brought in was ordered to undress and be searched regardless of how minor were the charges they faced.

People arrested for disorderly person offenses, traffic citations, or failure to pay child support were among those who were strip-searched, even in cases where they were detained only for a few hours while waiting to post bail.

A $2.4 million federal settlement last month calls for a $1.5 million fund to be created to cover claims for as many as 14,000 former inmates and allows $925,000 in fees for the attorneys who filed the lawsuit.  An inmate who was arrested for a minor offense and strip-searched during that nine-year period could receive from $100 to $400 for a claim, depending on the total number of inmates who ultimately submit claims to a court-approved administrator.

The county has admitted no wrongdoing or liability, and its lawyers said the county agreed to settle the decade-old case to avoid the cost of continuing the litigation.

Camera icon JAN HEFLER
Burlington County jail.

Nevertheless, Judge Noel L. Hillman of U.S. District Court in Camden — who has overseen the case since its filing 10 years ago — had determined that the county’s blanket strip-search policy violated New Jersey law, which he said was tougher than established federal cases governing strip searches.  In 2015, Hillman ruled that state law allows county jails to strip-search a person arrested for a minor offense only when there is a reason to suspect that a weapon, drugs, or contraband is being concealed, or when there is consent.

Hillman must formally approve the settlement.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two former inmates, Tammy Marie Haas and Conrad Szcpaniak, and any other inmates subjected to the blanket strip-search policy after they were arrested for offenses punishable by less than six months in jail.  In most of these cases, the corrections officers filled out paperwork required to conduct the searches but left blank the area that asked why they had a reasonable suspicion to justify such action.

“Burlington County clarified its procedures in 2013 to ensure strip searches would be conducted only for indictable offenses,” Jason Tosches, a spokesman for the county, said in an email.

Haas, formerly of Pemberton, was nine months pregnant when she was strip-searched in 2006 at the now-closed county Minimum Security Facility in Pemberton.  She was ordered to “bend over, cough, and spread her buttocks,” and then sprayed with a delousing agent, according to the lawsuit.  A warrant for her arrest said she owed $900 in child support, but it was later determined to be in error, her lawyers said.

When she questioned whether the search was necessary, corrections officers told her “it was policy,” the suit said.  Haas was detained for only a few hours as she waited for a relative to arrive and pay the child support.

Szcpaniak contended he was subjected to “a humiliating strip-search” after he was arrested in Mount Holly.  Under the terms of the settlement, Haas would receive $50,000, and Szcpaniak would get $30,000, because they represented the class of inmates in the litigation.

Neither could be reached for comment Thursday.

Carl Poplar and David Novack, the lead attorneys who represented the inmates, did not respond to several calls for comment.

Evan H.C. Crook and Michelle L. Corea, who defended the county, also did not return calls.

 

Camera icon AMY S. ROSENBERG
U.S. District Courthouse in Camden

In 2007, Camden County settled a similar class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates for $7.5 million. Two years later, Philadelphia settled a $5.9 million suit, while Gloucester County reached a $4 million settlement.

Burlington’s case took longer to resolve, partly because it was put on hold while another case involving a Burlington County inmate went before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Federal courts across the country had issued conflicting decisions on how best to balance the rights of inmates and detainees with the prison system’s need to keep contraband from being smuggled into the jails.

In Albert Florence v. County of Burlington, the high court upheld a 2010 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia that decided the county’s strip-search policy did not violate the rights of Florence. The Bordentown resident was strip-searched in 2005 after he was arrested on a warrant for failing to pay a fine issued on a charge of eluding a police officer.  The warrant was later found to be in error.

In the  5-4 decision, issued in 2012, the court found that anyone who is arrested — even for minor offenses and without any reasonable suspicion of contraband — may be legally strip-searched before being admitted into a jail.

After the decision, Burlington County’s lawyers declared a victory, saying the need for safety and security in the jails outweighed Florence’s claims that his rights were violated.

The lawyers then attempted to have the Haas case dismissed.  But Haas’ attorneys argued their clients were an exception and noted some inmates had not even been admitted into the general population of a jail.

Hillman agreed, and the case continued until the settlement was reached several weeks ago.  Lawyers are now preparing to post ads on Facebook and in newspapers to invite former Burlington County inmates to file claims under the settlement.