$34K paid to settle prisoner's civil rights suit

Meloni Terry  was arrested at her Orcas Island home on suspicion of burglary in October 2012. By the time she reached the county jail in Friday Harbor, she had been searched three times. The third pat down search by San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs led to the filing of a civil rights suit  in federal court in Seattle.

The suit was filed against the county, Sheriff Krebs, and Deputy Jack Wilsey who had witnessed the search.

According to court documents, the lawsuit claimed there was an unreasonable search of Terry and commitment of other wrongful acts. It states: The wrongful acts committed by the defendants and others include: failing to protect Terry from an officer who violently groped and squeezed her breasts and buttocks while she was restrained, refusing to allow Terry to contemporaneously file a complaint under the Prison Rape Elimination Act or any other grievance procedure, and retaliating against Terry when she subsequently filed a formal PREA complaint.

The  retaliation accusation is related to her treatment at Island County Jail. She says she was put in solitary confinement at Island Jail after a subsequent arrest on an unrelated matter in February 2015.  In her suit it was claimed that "the decision to segregate Terry and feed her Nutraloaf was retaliation for Terry complaining about her treatment at the hands of Deputy Krebs and the San Juan County Sheriff's Department and other deputies."

San Juan County does not have its own county jail, but has a contract with Island County. 

According to the court documents filed by the plantiff, when arrested at her home, Terry was asked if "she had anything on her" and then a pat down search was done. She was handcuffed and taken to the Orcas Island substation. She was again asked if "she had anything on her" and another pat down search was done. She remained handcuffed throughout the arrest. Upon arrival at Friday Harbor marina, Terry claimed, Sheriff Krebs conducted the third pat down described above.

In a phone interview Monday, September 4, 2017, Sheriff Krebs categorically denied the allegations. "I did a respectful and proper search," he said. Explaining the rationale for the third search he said, between the arrest, the substation, and the boat "there are a ton of opportunities" for a prisoner to get something.  "Anyone who goes in the back of the car is searched," he said.  

Krebs was disappointed that the county chose to settle. "I am innocent of this," he said. He noted the county has a history of settling claims. He wanted to and was ready to proceed to trial but the county's Risk Pool group was the decision maker.

In an email to San Juan Islander, San Juan County Prosecutor Randy Gaylord explained the process. "Ms. Terry’s account of the search is denied by officers. It did not happen in the way she described. The Sheriff and the Prosecuting Attorney were willing to take this matter to trial. Ms. Terry, a convicted felon, was considered not credible for many reasons. Because these risks are insured, the insurer has control of the settlement, and it becomes a business decision to settle the case. That is what happened, and the amount of the settlement reflects a “nuisance” value to the claim. The County Manager agreed with the settlement."

The lawsuit said the county did not have a policy for cross-gender clothed body searches. According to court documents: "San Juan County's responses to Public Records Act requests and discovery indicate that in 2012, at the time of the actions alleged in this Second Amended Complaint, the county failed to have a policy related to cross-gender searches that would protect the constitutional rights of female arrestees, detainees, or prisoners. Instead the policy and practice of the Sheriff's Department was to permit cross-gender searches of female arrestees and detainees without limitation."

Sheriff Krebs said his department's policy is to - when possible - have a female officer search a female suspect. However, there was only one female officer at the time of Terry's arrest and that officer wasn't available. Currently there are no female deputies in the county.

According to the prosecutor, "The pat-down is a standard practice at each step of transportation of prisoner to assure safety of all. There is no legal requirement that an over-the-clothes pat-down be conducted by a person of the same gender, and that’s not practical in a small jurisdiction. Officers are trained and a search is effective with a flat-hand pat-down, as was done in this case."

Terry filed a pro se (on one's own behalf)  complaint. A United State District Court Western District of Washington judge  assigned the case to the  prominent Seattle law firm of Lane Powell.  The county hired attorney Guy Bogdanovich of the Olympia law firm of Lyman, Daniel, Kamerrer & Bogdanovich.

Terry was awarded $34,000. Approximately $8,000 went to pay restitution for the burglary case. 

No guilt on the part of the county, the Sheriff or the deputy was admitted in the settlement. Neither side had to pay the other's attorney's costs or fees. Since Lane Powell handled Terry's case pro bono, she hadn't incurred any attorney fees. 

 

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