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Last case from Niagara Falls judge's cellphone incident may go to trial

Fourteen years ago, then-Niagara Falls City Judge Robert M. Restaino had 46 people arrested after he said he heard a cellphone ring in his courtroom.

One piece of litigation from that incident is still working its way through the courts.

Dedrick G. Williams, one of those jailed that day, sued Niagara County in U.S. District Court, claiming he was strip searched at the Niagara County Jail, which he called a civil rights violation.

In depositions, Sheriff's Office officials denied Williams was strip searched during his arrest and said he has changed his story about the incident.

During his deposition in 2007, Williams at first said he didn't remember being strip searched.

After his lawyer asked for a break and conferred with Williams outside the deposition room, Williams said he did remember being strip searched.

That lawyer, Elmer R. Keach III of Amsterdam, did not return a call seeking comment Monday.

The Niagara County Sheriff's Office has a policy to strip search all inmates brought from city lockups, including Niagara Falls.

Robert M. Restaino.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that jailhouse strip searches are almost always legal. Last year, relying on that decision, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara threw out a lawsuit against Erie County over its strip search policy.

On Jan. 3, Arcara also threw out lawsuits filed by two Niagara Falls women who were strip searched at the Niagara County Jail after arrests on minor charges, one in 2004 and the other in 2006.

But Arcara said there should be a jury trial to determine the facts in the Williams case. If the verdict comes back that he was not strip searched, that disposes of his case.

But if the jury finds he was strip searched, Williams might have a valid claim over whether such a search was reasonable, Arcara said. The federal judge noted the unusual circumstances of the mass arrests because of the ringing phone in Restaino's courtroom on March 11, 2005.

Court papers filed Friday indicate the sides will talk April 4 about holding a settlement conference with U.S. Magistrate Hugh B. Scott.

"I have very little interest, because I don't think (Williams) has a valid case," County Attorney Claude A. Joerg said.

Arcara previously squelched what Joerg thought was the biggest potential threat to the county's finances resulting from the matter.

In February 2018, Arcara disallowed an attempt to bring a class-action suit against the county over the strip search policy on behalf of everyone who had been jailed for a misdemeanor or violation in Niagara County since 2003. That would have been more than 8,000 people.

Joerg said the plaintiffs' attorneys, mostly from New York City and Washington, at first demanded an $8 million settlement from the county. Joerg said they later reduced that demand to $6 million.

"I said, 'I'm not paying on that,' " said Joerg.

Restaino's arrest order led to his removal from the bench from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in November 2007.

Today, Restaino serves as president of the Niagara Falls Board of Education and is running for mayor.

Ousted judge, still a proven vote-getter, will run for Niagara Falls mayor

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