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LaSalle County settles lawsuit with Coal City woman stripped after arrest

Published: Tuesday, April 8, 2014 2:13 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, April 8, 2014 2:50 p.m. CDT

(MCT) — LaSalle County authorities will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle lawsuits filed after a Coal City woman was stripped naked by four sheriff's deputies last year, and officials also plan to implement new jail policies to address strip searches.

Attorney Terry Ekl, who announced the settlement agreement Tuesday morning, said the county will pay $355,000 in legal fees and settlement costs.

Ekl's client, Dana Holmes of Coal City, cited jailhouse video in an October lawsuit that alleged LaSalle County authorities violated her civil rights and caused her emotional harm by stripping her naked without legal justification after she was arrested for drunken driving.

A sheriff's incident report said Holmes was uncooperative while being searched. Holmes will receive $125,000 and Ekl will get $100,000 in legal fees, according to court documents. Ekl said four people who later joined the case with claims of similar searches will each receive $30,000 and that a fifth person will receive $10,000. Holmes' claims against the deputies – who maintain they did not engage in any misconduct – are also dismissed.

James Sotos, a longtime colleague of Ekl's who represented LaSalle County in the case, said county authorities are in the final stages of implementing new, written policies on strip searches.

Those new procedures are meant to ensure the forcible removal of an inmate's clothing will only occur as a last resort, Sotos said. Furthermore, the policies would preserve any video footage of strip searches for two years.

The new policies will also require detailed documentation and supervisory oversight as part of any such occurrence, Sotos said.

"The county and department believe it's in everybody's best interest to focus on policies and protocols moving forward, rather than spending time and money fighting over who was right and wrong," Sotos said.

"What the case did was reveal a gap in jail policies and training protocols, not only in LaSalle County but throughout the state of Illinois."

Jail surveillance video shows three male guards and a female guard carrying Holmes into a cell, stripping off her clothes and leaving her naked. A deputy later tossed in a pile of blankets and what authorities describe as a "padded suit."

The county has said jail practice requires that inmates in padded cells be provided tear-proof safe suits in place of their street clothes for their own protection.

Under Illinois law, a strip-search is permitted only when officers have a "reasonable belief" that the subject is hiding a weapon or a controlled substance on his or her body.

The law also requires that the strip-search be done by an officer of the same sex as the subject and cannot be observed by people not conducting the search.

But state law doesn't address situations where arrestees are combative or uncooperative with the booking process, Sotos said. Holmes denied ever being combative with officers, and her attorney said the video of the incident proved that she was cooperative throughout her time in custody.

"There's been a gap in these policies as to what's permissible and not permissible in those situations," Sotos said.

"Correctional officers' job is to get people into cells without harming them and getting them into cells without them having anything they can use to harm themselves," he said. "So there's really not much in the way of policy to govern what correctional officers can do when they're in an altercation with somebody and need to get them into a cell."

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