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CNN Today

Strip Searches in New York City Lead to Lawsuit

Aired January 10, 2001 - 2:11 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Now, we're to New York City, and if the city agrees to it, and a judge goes along, 50,000 people, who were illegally strip-searched by New York police, could share a proposed settlement that may reach $50 million.

CNN's Maria Hinojosa is working this story today. She joins us now -- Maria.

MARIA HINOJOSA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Natalie. Well, this may turn out to be the largest civil rights lawsuit against New York City; and may result in largest the cash settlement ever against a city.

The story goes like this. For at least 10 months between 1996 and 1997, people who were arrested for minor offenses in Queens and Manhattan boroughs were subject to strip searches. People like administrative assistant Vivian Williams who didn't have a record, but who was arrested for selling shoes on the street. Once she was taken to central booking, she was ordered by corrections officers to strip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VIVIAN WILLIAMS, PLAINTIFF: I had two officers facing me and telling me to take off my clothes. I did what they asked. And not only was -- it was bad enough I was told to strip, but I was told to lift up my breast, to turn, to lift up legs, show my private parts. It was extremely demeaning and it was just an horrific act.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HINOJOSA: As many as 50,000 people were arrested during that time, and all of them may now be eligible to claim monetary damages. Anyone arrested then, who comes forward, will receive a minimum of $250. But those who prove they suffered emotionally could seek more damages. People like Carlos Morales, a hotel worker, also a first- time offender who was arrested after being stopped for a traffic violation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARLOS MORALES, PLAINTIFF: I was stripped searched against a wall in front of everyone. All the inmates were watching me. They took my shoes, my clothing -- they threw it very far away.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who did? MORALES: The correction officers. They threw it down the hallway -- they told my to chase after it. Throughout this whole ordeal, my mind was set, and that was it, I was going to die, I was going to get raped, like I was told, if I don't take my clothes off fast enough, one of the inmates was going to come out and rape me in front of everyone.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HINOJOSA: Now, a federal appeals court in 1986 had ruled that strip searches of minor offenders were illegal. The city claims that police officers knew that, but that when the corrections department took over, handling people in pre-arraignment, that they continued their policy of strip searching everyone detained. And even though there is a $50 million lawsuit pending, the former head of corrections, who was recently promoted to police commissioner, says he stands behind the practice of strip searching.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BERNARD KERICK, NEW YORK POLICE COMMISSIONER: The courts have determined it's inappropriate. Personally, I would like tend to disagree and say anybody that you take off the streets of the city and you have to put those people into a confined and secluded area with other people, that have been arrested for crimes, they should be strip searched for the safety of the people that's in there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HINOJOSA: Mayor Giuliani, who today disputed claims that there is a settlement, even though the plaintiff's lawyers said that they had a written agreement from the city, also said he believes strip searching detainees was a good security practice.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAYOR RUDY GIULIANI (R), NEW YORK: If people aren't searched effectively, and they're all being held for arraignment, and one person pulls out a razor blade and starts killing people, then you will find out that there's another side to this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HINOJOSA: An agreement would be subject to approval by a federal District Court judge and the lawyers are asking that anyone strip searched during that time come forward to claim their settlement money -- Natalie.

ALLEN: So, we've heard there are some officials that still like the idea of strip searches for minor offenses. Are they in the minority or just some more corrections officials -- would they still like to see this practice resumed?

HINOJOSA: Well, I have to tell you that the lawyers during the press conference -- the lawyers who represent the plaintiffs -- when they heard the mayor and the police commissioner saying that strip searching should continue, they were absolutely in shock. They couldn't believe this. But, the mayor and the police commissioner believe that, to keep crime down with -- within the -- within the prison system, that strip searching is the best thing you can do to keep others -- not only the corrections officers and police officers, but other prisoners safe. But the law says that for minor offenders, it's illegal.

ALLEN: And when might some of these people, who were strip searched, start seeing money from the city?

HINOJOSA: It's hard to determine that. As you can tell, the mayor is saying there isn't even an agreement, even though the lawyers are saying they have one signed. We can tell that this will go on for a while. But there is an expectation that perhaps a federal judge may rule on this as early as some time this week.

ALLEN: So, assuming that New York City has learned from -- from this ordeal, because of the money it will be paying out, we can assume that there are no more strip searches right away.

HINOJOSA: Right now -- right. Because when this lawsuit came into play, they stopped doing the strip searches of minor offenders. The question, though, is the strip searching of other offenders. That is a practice that continues now.

ALLEN: Maria Hinojosa, thank you for the report.

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