Naked city?

A class-action suit seeks damages for thousands of New Yorkers the Giuliani administration admits were strip-searched after being arrested for misdemeanors.

Ron Feemster
June 1, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

An unpaid traffic ticket resulting in a suspended driver's license was all
it took to launch Carlos Morales on a 20-hour trip through judicial hell.
The 33-year-old hotel worker didn't know his license was suspended, but the
officers who stopped his laundry van for a broken taillight in midtown Manhattan two years ago
did. They arrested him, charged him with a misdemeanor and sent him to
Central Booking, a warren of crowded holding pens attached to the Manhattan
courts. There, New York City corrections officers strip-searched Morales in
front of jeering prisoners, threatened him with rape if he didn't disrobe
faster, tossed his shoes down a crowded cellblock corridor and forced him
to retrieve them naked. When Morales finally saw a judge, he was fined $75
and sent on his way.

What happened to Morales was not an isolated incident. Today he is a
plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of at least 63,000
people who were illegally strip-searched while awaiting arraignment on
misdemeanor charges in Queens and Manhattan. In 1986, a federal appeals
court had declared it unconstitutional to strip-search misdemeanor suspects
without probable cause. But for more than 10 months in 1996 and 1997,
corrections officers searched every single prisoner -- a number that could
reach 115,000 according to plaintiffs' lawyers -- who passed through
Central Booking in Queens and Manhattan. The searches did not stop until
the class-action suit was filed in late May 1997.


The city does not deny that unconstitutional strip-searches occurred.
But Lorna Goodman, one of the city's top staff lawyers and a spokeswoman for
the Corporation Counsel, said the practice was an administrative mistake that
didn't hurt most prisoners. "To the 90th percentile, the persons who were strip-searched
had been in the system before. They had been through it all. If a striptease
person is strip-searched, the injury is less than the injury to a 17-year-old
parochial school girl who's never been arrested."

The strip-searches, Goodman explains, resulted from what she calls an
"administrative shift." In order to make more police officers available for
Mayor Rudy Giuliani's celebrated war on crime, the NYPD turned over control
of the pre-arraignment holding pens in Queens and Manhattan to the
Department of Corrections. The police officers who had worked there were
reassigned to crime-fighting duties. When the jailers took over,
they brought along their policy of strip-searching everyone
who comes into corrections custody. "You can say that this was based on
negligence or poor management or sloppy supervision," Goodman acknowledged. "But
it was a mistake, not a policy decision."

Goodman's legalistic notion of policy is as counterintuitive as the
definitions of sexual contact offered by lawyers in the Clinton-Lewinsky
scandal. Departmental memos approved by the senior wardens for Manhattan and Queens ordered
strip-searches for every prisoner awaiting arraignment. The memos included specific
instructions outlining which corrections personnel were responsible for strip-searches on the
various shifts. The procedures outlined in the memos, which are included in court papers,
took effect on July 27, 1996, the day the Corrections Department took over from the NYPD.
But Goodman said those memos do not technically constitute city policy statements.


While the distinction may prove important in a court of law, the court of public opinion
is sure to be less forgiving. After a series of high-profile police brutality cases, the
class-action suit will further tarnish Giuliani's once glittering law-enforcement
practices. The mayor declined to be interviewed for this article.

In 1996 and early 1997, fawning foreign reporters and delegations from
police departments around the world queued up to visit the NYPD's
"CompStat" meetings, where department chiefs grill precinct commanders on
their crime-fighting performance. As part of New York's "quality-of-life"
policing strategy, the NYPD dramatically increased misdemeanor arrests
during this period, which enabled the police to pick up criminals wanted on
outstanding warrants and to establish order in high-crime neighborhoods.
Ironically, many of the misdemeanor suspects arrested in Queens and
Manhattan during this period could end up claiming damages from the city.

Giuliani's hard-nosed anti-crime policies were the locomotive driving the mayor's
high approval ratings through his first five years in office, when the
murder rate was slashed by more than 50 percent. Now, those achievements
have been diminished by numerous high-profile allegations of police
and the mayor's approval ratings have taken a beating.


"I think you can call what happened in Central Booking the power of
business as usual," said George Kelling, a professor of criminal justice at
Rutgers University who is generally given credit for inventing the
"quality-of-life" approach to policing. "What sometimes happens is that a
way of doing business
becomes so routine, that the officers forget what their business was in the
first place," Kelling said. "These routines undermine the officers'
capacity for discretion."

Questions of policy and intent do not matter much to Carlos Morales.
Interviewed in his lawyers' office a few days ago, the cheerful, neatly
appointed Puerto Rican immigrant joked about performing rap songs with a
reporter's microphone. But his sunny disposition darkened when he talked
about the strip-search.


"I still live with this thing," Morales said, recounting what happened when
officers lined him up with 10 to 20 other men in the corridor of a
crowded cellblock. "I had only my underwear on, and I was told if you don't
remove your underwear we are going to have one of these big guys come out
of the cell and rape you. Or we are going to put you in the cell so you're
going to get raped. Then they make me run after my shoes and the guards are
saying to me, 'Nice butt, man' and 'Hey, you got a little weenie ...'"

Other plaintiffs recount equally grim tales in court papers. A 42-year-old
woman arrested for the first time was ordered to squat naked
and cough hard, a standard part of the strip search procedure designed to
discharge foreign objects from the anal and vaginal cavities. When she
expelled her sanitary napkin, corrections officers taunted her, telling her
to be sure and put it in a wastebasket although there wasn't one in the

A man arrested in Queens for driving with a suspended license said he
was ordered to lift his genitals so that a corrections officer could
visually inspect them. The door to the search room was left open and female
corrections officers walking by could look inside. A 48-year-old woman
arrested for the first time on disorderly conduct charges was ordered to
lift her breasts so that corrections officers could look beneath them.
Lifting breasts and genitals is not part of the city's official
strip-search protocol, according to court papers.


"I really think the searches were emblematic of a bureaucratic, callous
disregard for people's rights in general," said Matt Brinckerhoff, Morales'
lawyer. Brinckerhoff filed the class-action suit with his partner, Richard
Emery. "Once people are in the possession of the Department of Corrections,
you can do virtually anything you want to them. That's what the culture of
corrections is. When they took over these pens, they did what they do to
all of their prisoners. They certainly didn't hesitate to do anything that
was humiliating or degrading, and I don't think they ever had any concern
for people's constitutional rights."

It is difficult to imagine that city lawyers would risk going to trial with
this case, as New York is still reeling from the fatal shooting of Amadou
Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, by four police officers in February, and the recent guilty plea by a New York police officer in the assault of Abner Louima. Currently, New York State Attorney
General Eliot Spitzer is investigating the aggressive stop-and-frisk
tactics employed by the NYPD Street Crime Unit, the same unit whose
officers shot and killed Diallo.

But even if the two sides settle, the potential cost to the city is
staggering. In a settlement agreement earlier this month, the city agreed
to pay $25,000 apiece to four female Fordham University students who were
illegally strip-searched at a Bronx station house after being arrested for
not paying their subway fare. Filmmaker Nancy Tong received a $35,000 settlement
following an illegal strip search at a Chinatown precinct in 1994. An earlier
strip-search case brought by Emery and Brinckerhoff on behalf of a 75-year-old
woman resulted in a $200,000 settlement.


"The city has settled wrongful strip-search cases in the past for $25,000
when it concerned strip searches in private circumstances," Brinckerhoff
said, "Whereas most of the men in this case were strip-searched in large
groups. We don't see any reason why $25,000 shouldn't be a rational and
reasonable settlement for any of the people who were subjected to this kind
of degrading treatment. That's not to say that we aren't willing to have an
adjusted kind of scale depending on what people's circumstances were." Even
so, Brinckerhoff acknowledges that less than half of the 60,000 to 115,000
people who might be eligible for damages are likely to actually fill out
the forms and make a claim for damages.

Goodman believes that many plaintiffs should be entitled to only
nominal damages, if any. "I'd give them $1," she said. "Their rights were violated,
but they did not suffer any emotional damage."

Brinckerhoff points out that changes in pre-arraignment routines
could be frightening even to some seasoned prisoners. One of his clients, a
woman arrested for selling sneakers on the sidewalk without a permit, had
been to jail on Rikers Island, where she was used to being strip-searched
in a group. At Central Booking, she was brought into a private room
with two big guards who put on rubber gloves and told her to remove all of her
clothes. She didn't realize it was only a strip-search
until they told her to put her clothes back on.

How could a massive bureaucratic blunder involving tens of thousands of
illegal strip searches go undetected for so long? "For many months, no
individual person complained about it or we would have known about it and
stopped it," Goodman said. But couldn't it also be that no one took
complaints seriously? Jails are notoriously full of self-proclaimed
innocent men, and these days they are equally full of prisoners protesting
violations of their constitutional rights. Or did the city receive complaints
but fail to respond? A Legal Aid Society lawyer wrote a letter of complaint to
Commissioner of Corrections Michael Jacobson on April 3, 1997, about eight
weeks before the class-action lawsuit was filed. It apparently went
unheeded, at least until the suit was filed.


Again, Goodman defended the city's response to complaints. "When it came to our
attention we put a stop to it. I'm not sure that however long it took is so
long in the context of a city-wide bureaucracy," she said.

Ron Feemster

Ron Feemster is a New York writer.

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