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3 women file strip-search complaints
They were among 11 jailed in Seminole County when they missed their traffic-court hearings

Orlando Sentinel | April 27, 2005

Several people a judge ordered arrested simply for missing their traffic-court hearings were not only shackled and hauled off to Seminole County Jail, they say they were strip-searched, apparently in violation of state law.

County Judge John R. Sloop sent 11 people to jail Dec. 3. Six now say they were forced to strip as part of the booking process, though state law and even jail policy prohibit such invasive searches of anyone facing non-violent, non-drug charges. The five others could not be reached for comment.

Three women who were searched filed formal complaints with the Seminole County Sheriff's Office, which operates the jail. Those filings are required before a lawsuit can be pursued, allowing the agency to respond.

"The strip-search added insult to injury," said Ron Parilla, who was jailed about eight hours along with the others when they failed to make their traffic-court hearing after being directed to the wrong courtroom.

A Sheriff's Office spokesman refused to say whether jail personnel followed policy.

"Because of pending litigation, we're not saying anything one way or the other," said Steve Olson, sheriff's spokesman.

The attorney representing Alda Rugg of Oviedo and Aileen Nunez and Frantarshia Stafford of Orlando called the searches an abuse of authority.

"It's just a flagrant spit in the face of the Legislature and the rules," attorney Larry Hanks said.

The searches were part of a harrowing day for the 11, who were in court on misdemeanor traffic violations ranging from driving with a suspended license to having an illegal tag. After unwittingly sitting in the wrong courtroom awaiting their cases, the presiding judge finally directed them to the right courtroom, just next door. By then, warrants already had been issued for their arrests by Sloop. He refused to see them or withdraw the warrants and had them arrested.

While Sloop went to lunch and then had unrelated hearings, Chief Circuit Judge James E.C. Perry ordered the group released on their own recognizance.

Perry removed Sloop from handling criminal cases, and the state's Judicial Qualifications Commission has since charged Sloop with being an unfit judge.

Parilla, of Oviedo, said he was treated like any other inmate even though sheriff's personnel confided to the group that they were unfairly arrested.

"It's indicative that there are more problems in the system beyond Judge Sloop," Parilla said. "We got no calls. They fed us slop. They strip-searched us. They dehumanized us until they decided, 'We can let them go.' "

The strip-search didn't immediately stand out in Parilla's mind because it was part of a long, degrading day.

"It just didn't seem like we had an option," he said. "As soon as they put the handcuffs on you, you're in a different world."

Manuel Ramirez described how he was made to strip off his clothes and turn around in front of jail personnel. "They handcuffed and shackled me like a common criminal," said Ramirez, a student at the University of Central Florida. "It was an abuse."

State law prohibits strip-searches of people arrested for traffic, regulatory or misdemeanor offenses, unless they involve violence, a weapon or drugs. Most counties, including Seminole, have jail policies modeled on the law, which allows exceptions when there is "probable cause" to think someone is hiding drugs, weapons or stolen property.

Hanks said Seminole isn't the only county that doesn't follow its rules. Other defense attorneys report similar abuses elsewhere, he said. "It's institutional arrogance. It's a hellish attitude, and it's not getting better," he said. "But there's no way I would single out [Sheriff] Don Eslinger's watch."

Seminole has had no other lawsuits or complaints relating to strip-searches in the past four years, Olson said.

The demand letters from the three women arrested note that the Sheriff's Office exposure is limited to $100,000 for each case if a settlement is reached. If federal suits are filed, "there are no caps on the damages recoverable," the letters state.

Brevard, Orange and Volusia counties confirmed they have policies that prohibit strip-searches for people arrested for minor violations. None reported having received complaints or lawsuits related to strip-searches. Lake and Polk officials could not be reached for comment.

Miami-Dade County last week reached a tentative settlement in a class-action lawsuit involving strip-searches, agreeing to pay $4.55 million to more than 100,000 people. In that case, the county's policy did not comply with state law.

Last year, Rensselaer County in New York and Sacramento County in California approved multimillion-dollar settlements stemming from strip-search complaints.

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