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Class action suit against jail policies is settled in Meeker Co

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LITCHFIELD -- Meeker County's former practice of strip searching and sometimes photographing private body parts of all newly arrested people as they were booked into jail will cost the Minnesota Counties Insurance Trust $1.75 million.

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The Insurance Trust agreed to pay compensation and legal fees totaling that amount on behalf of Meeker County as part of a class-action settlement recently approved by U.S. District Court Judge Joan Erickson.

The county does not admit to any wrongdoing or liability as part of the agreement.

The agreement calls for paying $50,000 to Gail Lynn Simpson, of Big Lake, who filed the initial civil lawsuit against Meeker County in March 2008. Simpson charged that she had been booked into the jail five times on traffic violations, misdemeanor theft and a child-support dispute. She was strip searched each time, and her pierced breasts were photographed during her last admission, according to the civil complaint.

The order also requires that $950,000 in compensation be divided into shares and paid to 397 other claimants. They had filed forms by Sept. 11, 2009, asserting to have been strip searched or photographed when booked into jail during the period covered by the lawsuit, March 31, 2002 through April 30, 2008. The compensation will be awarded based on a formula that took into account their claims of 807 compensable strip searches and 132 compensable instances of photography of personal areas.

The court also ordered that up to $70,000 be set aside as a "stragglers fund'' and used to compensate other persons who have until Nov. 24 to file claims for having been strip searched or photographed.

The remaining $630,000 will be paid to the plaintiffs' law firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi of Minneapolis, although that amount could be reduced by up to the $70,000 yet to be awarded as the stragglers fund.

Meeker County also agrees to maintain its new procedures on strip searches and photography.

The new procedures were adopted one month after the filing of the lawsuit. They limit strip searches to newly arrested persons who are charged with felony level offenses or offenses involving drugs or weapons or in cases where officers have reason for suspicion.

The plaintiffs alleged in their lawsuit that the county was essentially strip searching everybody who was booked into the jail for more than six hours, even if the charged offense was a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor, said attorney Vincent Moccio, who represented the plaintiffs.

Moccio said his office received mainly "positive feedback" from the claimants in response to the settlement.

The attorney's office had sent notices of the class-action suit to 2,643 people at 4,455 addresses, according to the court order. Those notified could either opt out of the suit or attest to being strip searched and or photographed.

The attorney representing the county, Jon Iverson, of Iverson Reuvers in Bloomington, was out of the office when attempts were made to contact him late Tuesday afternoon. In a news release announcing the settlement, the attorney pointed out that a similar lawsuit was handled on behalf of St. Croix County, Wis., and resulted in a payout of more than $6 million and that a case involving Mille Lacs County required a $2 million payout.

Meeker County was able to settle the case within the limits of its insurance coverage, and it avoids any ongoing legal costs, the news release also stated.

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