April 08, 2020

Knox County strip-search case settled

ROCKLAND – A class-action lawsuit over illegal strip-searches at the Knox County Jail was settled Monday pending the approval of a federal judge.

The details of the settlement were not available, but the Knox County commissioners Monday morning unanimously approved using $375,000 in county funds toward the settlement, provided it is approved on Oct. 11 by U.S. District Judge Gene Carter in Portland.

Attorneys for both sides Monday declined to comment on the eleventh-hour settlement. The case, which was filed nearly four years ago, had been scheduled to go to trial today in U.S. District Court in Portland.

A similar class-action strip-search lawsuit against York County was settled last year without going to trial. That case had 7,000 to 8,000 potential class members.

In the York County case, the final settlement arrangements included paying $1,670 each to approximately 1,350 people.

There are between 7,000 and 7,500 potential members of the class in the Knox County case, Newport attorney Dale Thistle, who represents the lead plaintiff, Laurie Tardiff of Thomaston, said last month.

Tardiff sued Knox County and the sheriff in December 2002, alleging her civil and constitutional rights were violated on Feb. 7, 2001, when she was strip-searched by a female officer at the Rockland jail after being arrested on a felony charge of tampering with a witness. That charge and a charge of violating conditions of release, a misdemeanor, later were dismissed.

Not all of the potential class members in the Knox County lawsuit would seek damages or be found eligible to receive them, Peter Marchesi, the Waterville attorney who represents Knox County and the jail, said last month.

“Generally, about 15 percent of the people in the potential class actually participate in a settlement or trial and receive damages,” he said.

The settlement agreement in the Knox County case apparently was hammered out Friday when attorneys for both sides met in Portland with U.S. District Judge George Singal. Before being appointed to the federal bench in 2000, the judge worked as a mediator when he was an attorney in Bangor

Carter ordered the mediation session in mid-September when he split the case into two parts – a trial to determine the county and the sheriff’s liability, and a series of subsequent trials to determine damages.

Before approving the settlement, Carter will have to reverse that decision and reunify the case.

Maine law allows strip-searches of detainees charged with felonies that are violent, drug-related or involve weapons. Detainees charged with nonviolent, nondrug- or nonweapon-related infractions and those charged with misdemeanors are not subject to strip-searches unless there is a reasonable suspicion they are concealing contraband.

In 2003, about a year after the case was filed, Carter certified it as a class-action lawsuit that allowed people charged with nonviolent misdemeanors who were strip-searched at the Rockland jail between Nov. 19, 1996, and Dec. 31, 2004, to join the lawsuit.

Carter in November 2005 issued a strongly worded summary judgment decision in favor of Tardiff and other members of the class. He found the county liable for illegally strip-searching arrestees between Nov. 19, 1996, and Aug. 31, 2002.

The judge also ruled that a jury needed to decide whether illegal strip-searches were conducted at the jail between Sept. 1, 2002, and Dec. 31, 2004.

It could not be determined Monday from court documents what time periods the settlement included.

Carter last year harshly criticized the county, the sheriff and jail officials for failing to stop unconstitutional strip-searches at the jail despite knowing for years that the procedure violated Maine law.

Earlier this year, Marchesi asked the judge to reconsider his summary judgment decision. Carter denied the motion but adjusted the time period that applied to the potential plaintiffs.

“There remains substantial uncontroverted record evidence that there was a practice of strip-searching misdemeanor detainees without reasonable suspicion,” the judge wrote. “If this was not evidence of the fire itself, it undoubtedly showed the smoke rising over the trees.”

BDN writer Leanne Robicheau contributed to this report.

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