CHICAGO | In the largest-ever class action settlement of its kind, the Cook County Board of Commissioners and its insurers agreed today to pay $55 million to settle a lawsuit over illegal strip-searches conducted at the county jail.
At least 250,000 people jailed between Jan. 30, 2004 and March 30, 2009 are eligible to share in the settlement of the suit filed by the civil rights law firm, Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law, according to a release from the firm.
"This settlement puts an end to the cruel and shameful hazing that the Sheriffs' Department allowed in that jail every night," said Michael Kanovitz, a partner at Loevy & Loevy. "The public should expect the jail to use strip searches only when appropriate and only in a professional manner."
In February 2009 a federal judge faulted the jail for strip searching people who were awaiting bail on minor crimes like traffic violations. He also found that the jail would perform the searches by humiliating detainees with group strip searches, standing shoulder to shoulder in unsanitary conditions.
Over 400 class members also submitted affidavits attesting that the guards used insults or abusive language during strip searches, including insults about body odor, anatomy, sexual orientation and race.
In August of 2009, a jury found that Sheriff Tom Dart was liable to the class, although the suit was filed filed against Sheriff Michael Sheahan.
"These claims were made years before Sheriff Dart took office and are based on past practices at the Cook County Jail - practices which haven't existed in years," said Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Patterson.
Within 90 days of taking office in 2006, Patterson said the sheriff installed temporary screens installed to ensure privacy during searches. After a county bid process was complete, the first body scan machine -- similar to those used in airports -- was installed in March 2008. By the end of that year, 10 more body scanners had been installed in the jail. Today, every building on the jail campus has state-of-the-art body scanners.
Now, strip searches are conducted only when the scanners indicate there is probable cause to conduct a more detailed search of a person.
Patterson said there have been "wildly conflicting federal court rulings across the country on this issue," and that Dart believes it is time for one rule for all correctional facilities that conduct strip searches.
"The lawyers involved in this case sought as much as $135 million from Cook County taxpayers and though the class size is large because we process 100,000 people a year, the vast majority of this money will go to the lawyers and not the detainees," Patterson said. "In fact, the amount each detainee could actually see is very small - in most cases, just a few hundred bucks - compared to the millions and millions of taxpayer dollars that will be reaped by these lawyers."
State's Attorney Anita Alvarez urged the board to approve the settlement, known as Kim Young, et al v. Sheriff Michael Sheahan, et al. "Resolve the case now," Deputy State's Attorney Patrick T. Driscoll Jr. said.
Commissioner Earlean Collins criticized the sheriff's office conduct noting "why did the Cook County police strip search large numbers of non-violent arrestees, all male, when it was not allowed for women?"
Commissioner Joan Patricia Murphy said, "We know the story. It shouldn't have happened. It did happen."
$10 million of the settlement will come from insurance payments. The remainder, $45 million, would come from county resources. About $15 million of the settlement would be paid to attorneys, the committee was told.
"I'm going to hold my nose when I vote for it," Commissioner Peter Silvestri said.
Commissioner Tony Peraica was the sole commissioner voting against the settlement. "We didn't make the mistake once, we made the mistake twice and if we count the females -- three times," Peraica said. "A lack of supervision by the sheriff created a $55 million liability."
Peraica wanted the board to direct Alvarez to settle with individual detainees and to fight the class action suit.
Plaintiffs' attorneys also will sue two of the county's insurers, both owned by AIG, that refused to contribute to the settlement.
Those who believe they may be eligible are encouraged to go to the new www.cookcountystripsearch.com website to learn how they can get compensation.
Copies of the suit brought by Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law, Kim Young, et al. v. County of Cook, et al., No. 06 C552, the plaintiffs' statement of facts and their brief can be found via a button on the www.Loevy.com website labeled "Young Strip Search Class Action."