LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles County tentatively agreed to pay out $53 million to settle a federal class-action lawsuit brought by women who were subjected to unnecessarily invasive and humiliating strip searches at the Century Regional Detention Center in Lynwood, according to court documents filed Tuesday.
“This proposed class-action settlement represents a significant resolution of a deeply troubling period in which tens of thousands of women were strip-searched — with intrusive methods and inadequate privacy — while they were inmates in the Los Angeles County jail system from March 2008 through January 2015,” according to a county statement.
Authorities halted routine strip searches of women in custody as of April 2016 and now use body scanners in 98% of screenings, according to the statement, which says the county “is profoundly concerned about the practices that gave rise to this lawsuit, and is committed to making sure that reforms instituted by the Sheriff’s Department since 2016 will continue to build a culture that prioritizes safety, dignity and respect for inmates and staff.”
The proposed settlement is still subject to a judge’s approval. Once it is finalized, the county plans to post a class notice on the Sheriff’s Department website with information on how to file a claim.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the payout in January during a closed-door meeting and provided no details at the time, beyond a comment by Supervisor Sheila Kuehl that the five-member board was “horrified” by the details of the complaint.
The plaintiffs alleged that strip and body-cavity searches were conducted in groups of up to 60 women crowded together in a bus bay with a roll-up door open to the jail’s reception area where male employees worked. They accused deputies of using obscenities and abusive and demeaning language during the group search.
Some alleged that deputies required inmates to insert their fingers into their mouths after touching other body cavities.
Women searched were required to remove tampons and sanitary napkins and left to bleed onto the ground or themselves until the search was completed.
In 2017, a federal judge ruled that the women’s Fourth Amendment rights had been violated and the parties began mediation.
Kuehl, who is out of the country, provided a statement of her own.
“The long history of strip-searching women at the Century Regional Detention Facility that was brought to light by this case is repugnant and inexcusable,” Kuehl said. “It clearly demonstrated the need for continued reforms and oversight at the L.A. Sheriff’s Department, and underscores the importance of the gender-responsive efforts the county has initiated to create an environment for women in our custody that ensures the safety and dignity of each and every one of them.”
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas also blasted the searches.
“It is inexcusable that women incarcerated at the Central Regional Detention Facility have been subjected to dehumanizing experiences, enduring humiliating and intrusive body cavity searches and other painful violations while in our custody,” he said in a statement. “Almost half of the women at CRDF are still awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any crime. Often, when they are sentenced, it is for a nonviolent offense. Many have long histories of abuse and trauma. … The county still has a long way to go.”
The strip searches covered by the lawsuit took place largely during former Sheriff Lee Baca’s tenure. Baca resigned in January 2014 and was convicted in 2017 of obstruction of justice and lying to federal investigators in connection with a probe into jail violence.
However, problems continued at the women’s jail, as evidenced by the county’s decision last year to pay out $3.9 million to women who alleged they were sexually assaulted by Deputy Giancarlo Scotti in 2017. Scotti has pleaded not guilty to related felony charges and is awaiting a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.
As for inmate searches, a December report by the Sheriff’s Department on the installation and use of body scanners stated that 8,124 scans were conducted at CRDF in the first nine months of 2018 and not one inmate refused the scanner in favor of a physical search.
However, the “department routinely conducts strip searches of inmate housing locations and inmate personal property during day-to-day operations within all custody facilities to maintain safe jail facilities for inmates and staff, while also removing potentially dangerous contraband” and data on those day-to-day searches is not tracked, according to the report.
The county is continuing to focus on jail reforms, according to its statement.
“We hope that this settlement will help bring healing and closure to the women affected by past practices, even as it underscores our determination to continue on the path of justice system reform,” the county’s statement concluded.
Kuehl also pointed toward the need for more changes.
“Reform, oversight and respect for women are the only way to be sure that such deplorable and odious behavior never occurs again,” Kuehl said.
The Los Angeles Times editorial board said in an opinion published Tuesday morning that the county should have settled earlier.
“Plaintiffs’ lawyers were ready to settle at an earlier date, for a lower amount, when there were fewer class members and less evidence of misconduct. But the county’s lawyers routinely focus too much on fighting legitimate claims and too little on fixing the problems,” the editorial read. “That means more people being needlessly hurt more deeply and more often. And the rest of us paying more because of it.”
Previous related stories: