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Erie, Niagara strip-search lawsuits face tougher road; Supreme Court decision complicates claims here

Two class-action lawsuits that involve thousands of former jail inmates in Erie and Niagara counties have been weakened by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows jails to conduct strip-searches on inmates held on minor offenses.

The federal lawsuits over strip-searches in Erie and Niagara counties have been on hold for a year as attorneys in the cases awaited the decision from the nation's highest court on a similar case, which involved a New Jersey man who was forced to undress for a strip-search after he was arrested on a warrant for an unpaid fine.

A divided Supreme Court ruled 5-4 last week that visual strip-searches can be done on inmates entering a jail's general population regardless of the level of offense for which they're being held.

That ruling will have an effect on the class-action claims in Erie and Niagara counties, according to attorneys involved on both sides in the local cases, but they paint different pictures of the extent of the impact here.

The Supreme Court ruling "validates" the conduct of law enforcement officers at the jails, said James P. Domagalski, a Hiscock and Barclay attorney who is defending the counties.

"This decision will demonstrate that law enforcement in both Erie and Niagara counties were acting appropriately in the interest of not only the officers running the jail, but also the other prisoners and the actual detainees themselves, to make sure that contraband was not brought into the facility," Domagalski said.

But there are important distinctions between the Supreme Court case involving New Jersey resident Albert W. Florence and the way strip-searches were done in Erie County, according to an attorney who helped bring the lawsuits against Erie and Niagara counties.

"Obviously the Florence case has an important effect on the Erie County jail case, in that the searches that were at issue have now, unfortunately, been declared legal by a one-vote majority of the United States Supreme Court," said Elmer Robert Keach, one of several attorneys representing former inmates at the jails. "But that doesn't end the inquiry because the searches were not done, as the searches of Florence [were], on individuals who were in privacy by themselves."

Keach said he plans to pursue the Erie County case based on evidence that he said will show incoming inmates at the Erie County facilities were strip-searched in groups in front of other detainees.

"That's obviously an additional level of humiliation," Keach said.

Keach said he plans to pursue the Niagara County case based on the allegation that arrestees were strip-searched there regardless of whether they were heading into the jail's general population -- a scenario that the Supreme Court's ruling did not address.

The local cases were certified as class-action lawsuits, potentially affecting an estimated 30,000 former inmates who entered the jail facilities in Erie County between July 22, 2001, and May 1, 2004, and an estimated 4,000 who entered the Niagara County jail after May 2003.

In the New Jersey case, Florence was strip-searched in two county jails after being arrested on a warrant for an unpaid fine that he had, in fact, paid. The court majority said the circumstances of the arrest were of little importance.

"Correctional officials have a legitimate interest, indeed a responsibility, to ensure that jails are not made less secure by reason of what new detainees may carry in on their bodies," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the court's decision.

Previously, some lower federal courts had ruled that arrestees accused of minor offenses could only be strip-searched if there was a reasonable suspicion they held contraband.

The new ruling provoked concern from Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer that it would create a "policy that would subject those arrested for minor offenses to serious invasions of their personal privacy."

Erie County Undersheriff Mark Wipperman said current policy at the Erie County Holding Center is that incoming inmates are subjected to a pat-down frisk over one layer of clothing. A supervisor must sign off on a strip-search if there is suspicion of contraband, Wipperman said.

email: djgee@buffnews.com