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New York City May Pay $50 Million to Victims of Strip-Searches

Aired January 10, 2001 - 4:01 p.m. ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: New York City could end up paying another high price for aggressive law-enforcement tactics. After reams of bad P.R. over several brutality cases, the city now is considering a settlement of up to $50 million with tens of thousands of victims of illegal strip-searches. Now, it would be one of the biggest civil- rights settlements ever paid out by a city in this country.

CNN's Maria Hinojosa is in New York with more on the proposed agreement and the actions that triggered it -- Maria.


It may turn out to be one of the largest cash settlements for a civil-rights abuse case against any city. New York is considering a proposal to pay up to $50 million to as many as 60,000 people who were strip-searched after being arrested for minor offenses.


(voice-over): The anguish of the plaintiffs was palpable even up to four years later. Vivian Williams said it was still difficult to talk about what happened to her when she was arrested for selling shoes on the street without a license. An administrative assistant with no record, she expected to be sent home with a ticket. Instead, corrections officers ordered her to strip.

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

HINOJOSA: Crowded into a tiny lawyers' conference room, the plaintiffs recounted experiences they call traumatic and unforgettable.

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

HINOJOSA: But Mayor Giuliani and his police commissioner, Bernard Kerik, defended the policy of strip-searching, saying it was a security measure that helped reduce violence in holding pens. MAYOR RUDY GIULIANI, NEW YORK: If people are not 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 is another side to this.

HINOJOSA: Strip-searching people arrested for minor offenses was barred in 1986 by a federal appellate court. The mayor said his police officers knew that when they arrested people. But jail guards who took those people to holding cells didn't. And they continued strip-searching anyone for 10 months in 1996 and '97.

BERNARD KERIK, NEW YORK POLICE COMMISSIONER: As far as the Correction Department goes, when the Correction Department assumed the responsibilities, they used the same policies that we had in the jails. In any jail in this city, any holding facility -- any holding pen, going into one of the facilities, you are strip-searched before you go into the facility. And it's done so for a number of different reasons, but primarily for the safety of the people that's going into the system.


HINOJOSA: Lawyers for the plaintiffs say anyone strip-searched during that time, between 1996 and '97, will be able it claim a minimum of $250 and up to $22,000 if they can demonstrate that they suffered emotionally as a result of the strip search. But Mayor Rudy Giuliani says no agreement has been reached yet -- Joie.

CHEN: Maria, I am still a little bit confused about that. They are talking about the amounts and conditions of a settlement, and yet they haven't actually signed off on it yet?

HINOJOSA: Well, we are getting different information. The lawyers are saying that they, in fact, have a signed agreement from the city. But the mayor today in a news conference said that there was no agreement signed yet. But he did say that, if there was an agreement, there would be a minimum of a $20 million agreement. But it could be as high as $50 million. So we will see later today what the mayor ends up saying as to if there really is an agreement or not.

CHEN: CNN's Maria Hinojosa, reporting to us from our New York bureau.

Well, joining us now from New York is one of the lead plaintiffs in the strip-search lawsuit. Danni Tyson had no prior record when she was strip-searched in 1997. She had been arrested for disorderly conduct. But that is a charge that later was dropped. Also with us today is Richard Emery, who is one of the lead attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

Danni, I would like to begin with you and ask you what the conditions were, the circumstances were that brought you into this situation?

DANNI TYSON, PLAINTIFF: A simple matter of acting -- asking a police officer to step aside so I could enter a very crowded rush-hour train.

CHEN: And was there an explanation for how you ended up being one of the people picked out to be strip-searched?

TYSON: An explanation? I am not sure I understand.

CHEN: I mean, did they tell you: "We think you have got a weapon," or "Are you hiding something?" "Are you hiding drugs?," Are you hiding a weapon?" Did anybody offer you any sort of explanation about that?

TYSON: No, he said that I was being arrested because I wouldn't stop talking.

CHEN: That is an interesting arrest.

All right, Richard Emery, can you talk to us a bit more about the arrests that were made? I mean, this -- we are talking about petty crimes, misdemeanors here?

RICHARD EMERY, PLAINTIFFS' ATTORNEY: Yes, the class-action only concerns people who were arrested for minor offenses and who were held before they met with the judge, before they faced a judge for the charges, and were strip-searched nonetheless. That is blatantly unconstitutional. And I have to correct your report: There is a signed agreement. The city is bound by it. They have no ability to get out of this agreement, except under very, very narrow circumstances that -- that will not occur.

CHEN: And so is that amount of $50 million, you think, the final amount?

EMERY: The amount is going to be between $20 million and 50 million, depending on how many people respond and what kind of proof of damages and the particular circumstances of their strip-search are demonstrated in the responses, in the claim forms. It will vary anywhere from $20 million to $50 million depending on the types of responses and the numbers.

CHEN: I think our reporter, Maria Hinojosa, was noting that there did seem to be some conflict in information coming from the city to her and what she has heard from the lawyers. I just want to clarify on that.

I want to ask you, though, about the decision to do this itself. Mayor Giuliani has been involved a campaign to clean up his city's image, to take crime off of the streets, even petty crimes off the streets, so that both residents and tourists would feel safer there. And he is still defending it. Do you think there is a justification, a logic under certain circumstances, for someone to be strip-searched before entering a jail facility?

EMERY: Courts have uniformly held that people can be strip- searched in this situation, prior to arraignment, only when there is a particular reason to search that particular person. They can't have a blanket policy, like they did here, in the case of minor offenders. That's the problem. People like Danni Tyson cannot be put in the position of being degraded and humiliated in this way for having -- having a discussion with a police officer who takes offense.

CHEN: Ms. Tyson, I guess you work, you live in the city as well. Do you have a sense that maybe there is some justification? There are bad people on the streets. There are people who hide things from the police or from jailers when they enter the jail system. Do you think that there is any justification, any logic to having strip-searches under those kind of circumstances, even if the offense listed on the paper might be loitering or something like that?

TYSON: You know, we are professionals at our jobs. I expect police officers would behave in a professional manner. And this officer did not behave as a professional. There was no reason for someone like me to be picked up off of the street and treated this way.

CHEN: Ms. Tyson, I appreciate you being with us -- Danni Tyson -- as well a Richard Emery, who is one of the attorneys involved in this case. We appreciate your insight today.



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