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ACLU Settles Case With Woonsocket Police Department Over Illegal Strip Search

Posted: June 30, 2004|Category: Police Practices Category: Privacy

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The ACLU of Rhode Island today announced that a settlement had been reached in a federal lawsuit it filed two years ago against the Woonsocket Police Department on behalf of a woman who was strip-searched and left naked in a holding cell for over five hours after being arrested for “driving under the influence.” Under the settlement, the defendants agreed to pay $65,000 to plaintiff Joann Lanoue in exchange for dismissal of the suit. The agreement specifies that it does not constitute any acknowledgement of wrongdoing by Woonsocket police officials.

In December 2001, Lanoue was involved in a car accident and taken to the police station where she refused to take a breathalyzer test. A female police officer then forced her to undergo a strip search. According to the complaint, all of Ms. Lanoue’s clothes were then taken from her, and she was left fully naked in a holding cell for approximately five to six hours, with a camera located directly in front of the cell. After this five-hour-plus period, a male police officer came by and threw Ms. Lanoue’s clothing into the cell. She was released from the police station the next morning, and the driving under the influence charge was ultimately dismissed.

The lawsuit, filed by ACLU volunteer attorney V. Edward Formisano, called the strip search “demeaning, dehumanizing, undignified [and] humiliating.” The suit argued that “it is well-settled law” that a strip search of an arrestee who is charged with a minor offense is unconstitutional absent a reasonable suspicion that the person is concealing a weapon or contraband, and that the strip-search violated Ms. Lanoue’s clearly-established constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The lawsuit was held in abeyance as settlement negotiations proceeded.

R.I. ACLU executive director Steven Brown said today, “The ACLU and Ms. Lanoue are very pleased that this case has been settled without the need for a trial. We believe the settlement is fair compensation for the invasion of privacy that occurred that night, and will help prevent other people arrested in Woonsocket for minor offenses from being subjected to inappropriate and demeaning procedures in the future.”

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