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Class Action Settlement for Victims of Unlawful Strip Searches by Chester, Pennsylvania, Police Department

Attorneys Alan M. Feldman, Edward S. Goldis and Andrew K. Mitnick secured a preliminary class action settlement for people who were subjected to unconstitutional strip searches by the City of Chester’s Police Department in Pennsylvania.

The litigation arose after their client, Kenard Pitney, was arrested on minor charges in May 2018 by Chester police while he was a patron at Harrah’s Casino in Chester. Over several hours, Pitney had consumed three or four drinks while gambling. When he sought to retrieve his vehicle from valet parking to obtain some personal items, including his house keys, casino security personnel refused to allow him access to his car based upon a concern that he was too intoxicated to drive safely. Even though Pitney explained that he simply wanted to retrieve items from his vehicle and would call a friend for a ride home, security still refused to permit him access. Pitney, himself, requested that police be called. When officers arrived, they arrested him and charged him with public drunkenness.
Pitney was brought to the Chester police station, where he was handcuffed to a bench while awaiting processing. Shortly thereafter, the police contacted his fiancée, who advised that it would take her about an hour to find a babysitter and then drive to the police station to pick him up. During the wait, Pitney was transferred to a vacant holding cell where he was subjected to a strip search that lasted 5 to 10 minutes.

The strip search was conducted pursuant to a policy adopted by the City of Chester in 1995 that required a mandatory strip search for all individuals arrested and placed in a holding cell. The intrusive, humiliating searches were uniformly carried out without regard to an arrestee’s specific circumstances, such as whether the offense was minor or whether officers had a reasonable suspicion that the arrestee was carrying drugs, weapons or other contraband.

Specifically, Pitney was wearing only shorts, a t-shirt and sandals, and his immediate pat-down in the casino parking lot did not reveal any weapons or dangerous objects. Pitney was not violent or belligerent, and his detention had not been reviewed by a judicial officer. After about 90 minutes at the police station, Pitney was released to his fiancée and was issued a summons for public intoxication. The charge was later dismissed.

The class action settlement provides that individuals taken into custody by Chester police and unlawfully strip-searched pursuant to the 1995 policy from February 25, 2017 through December 9, 2020, and who voluntarily opt-in to the class action, will receive compensation of either $1,000, $400 or $100 depending upon the charges they were facing. Well over 1,000 individuals will qualify for a payment. Pitney was awarded $25,000 under the preliminary settlement terms.

The agreement further provides that the police department will update its policies to ensure that strip searches are conducted in accordance with existing law, which requires that police have a particularized reasonable suspicion to justify a strip search.