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Meeker County, sheriff deny improper strip-searching policy at jail

LITCHFIELD -- In their response to a lawsuit, Meeker County and its sheriff have denied allegations of improper strip searching at the jail.

A lawsuit was filed in late March in U.S. District Court by Gail Lynn Simpson of Big Lake, challenging the Meeker County jail's policies for strip-searching and photographing intimate body regions of inmates.

According to U.S. District Court documents, defendants Meeker County and Sheriff Mike Hirman responded to the complaint by denying the allegation that there was no reasonable suspicion to search Simpson. The defendants also denied that Meeker County Jail has ever strip-searched inmates regardless of whether there is probable cause to search for contraband or weapons.

Simpson's complaint cites five admissions into Meeker County Jail that involved strip searches and one booking that involved photos of her bare breasts because she had breast piercings. The five arrests of Simpson in Meeker County were for one or more misdemeanor offenses. All but one of the arrests involved a driving offense.

Simpson claims in her suit that the policy disregards the nature of the inmates' detainment and disregards probable cause to search arrestees for contraband or weapons. Simpson is also challenging the policy of photographing body piercings.

The plaintiff alleges that both policies violated her rights guaranteed by the Fourth and 14th Amendments of the Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment protects all U.S. citizens from unreasonable searches and seizure of their persons and property without a warrant. The 14th Amendment protects citizens from being deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.

Meeker County closed its Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday to discuss the lawsuit. The meeting was legally closed under an exception to the Open Meeting Law that allows a governing body to close a public meeting to consult with its attorney on pending litigation.

According to a meeting notice from the county, the county closed the meeting to discuss the timeline, details and strategies of its pending lawsuit with the county's attorney, Jon K. Iverson of Iverson Reuvers Attorneys at Law in Bloomington.

"I can't remember the last time we closed a meeting," said County Administrator Paul Virnig. "It's just something we don't do."

Court documents indicate the plaintiff and defendants have until June 1, 2009, to discover all and any facts needed for their cases. Court documents also indicate that Simpson's representation, attorney Vincent L. Moccio of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi in Minneapolis, has requested non-public data from Meeker County regarding the detention data of inmates jailed from March 31, 2002, to March 31, 2008 -- the time period which the plaintiff is challenging the policy.

Moccio confirmed Wednesday that the plaintiff has until March 2, 2009, to file the case for class-action certification; a U.S. District Court judge decides if the case qualifies as a class-action suit. If certified, Simpson will also represent other inmates similarly situated with Meeker County Jail. Simpson and her represented class seek monetary damages in excess of $75,000, according to the filed complaint.

The defendants will have until May 1, 2009, to file opposition papers to the pending class-action certification. According to the court documents, the plaintiff also requested a jury trial for the pending lawsuit and it has been scheduled for Sept. 15, 2009.

County jails in Minnesota and Wisconsin have seen lawsuits similar to Meeker County's in recent years. According to a previous report, Mille Lacs County faced a $2 million settlement in 2005 after a lawsuit challenging the county jail's protocol was filed in U.S. District Court. In 2004, St. Croix County, Wis., settled for $7 million in a similar case.