Friday, September 26, 2008

Unwarranted search?

I hadn't heard about this.

See what happens when I'm not paying attention.

Strip-search case settlement reached
Lomi Kriel - Express-News

A tentative settlement has been reached in a federal lawsuit filed against the city by 13 club patrons who claimed they were illegally strip-searched, including an inspection of their breasts and buttocks, during a police raid at a South Side bar notorious for a string of violence.
Details of the settlement have not been released, and City Attorney Michael Bernard said he couldn't discuss it because it is pending. Attorneys for the patrons similarly declined. It is expected to be finalized in about two weeks.

Court filings and internal investigative documents released by the city paint vastly different pictures of that April 2007 night at the Wild Turkey Saloon in the 1400 block of Southwest Military Drive.

The four officers who were eventually suspended for their roles in the case — discipline that police union chiefs termed as “excessive” and solely the result of the incident's publicity — contend no strip search ever took place but that patrons who wanted to use the restroom were simply frisked to ensure they had no drugs or weapons. None of the more than 20 other officers at the scene said they witnessed or knew of a strip search.

But the 11 female plaintiffs described an intimidating scenario in which those needing to use the bar's restroom, and some who were forced to go, had to endure a strip search that included the removal of their bras and them turning around with their underwear down as two female officers visually inspected their buttocks.

The documents describe a police raid that was poorly organized and initially without any supervision. Though the majority of the officers were from the department's Tactical Response Unit, no TRU supervisor ever made the scene, at the last minute forcing two South Side patrol sergeants to take charge.

In the documents, police officers said the owner of the bar, which had been the site of dozens of police calls including a Mexican Mafia-related homicide weeks before the raid, was angry about the search and threatened to do something about what she termed ongoing police harassment. It was also lawyers for the bar owner who contacted the women after the incident and encouraged them to obtain an attorney to sue the city about the case, according to statements patrons made to police investigators.

The women told them that they didn't know whether they would have otherwise pursued legal action. But the women also told police they felt “violated” and thought that what happened was “wrong.”

Subsequent to the raid, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission revoked the bar's liquor license because, an investigator wrote, it was frequented by the Mexican Mafia, security was lax and it had become “a breeding ground for multiple and widespread acts of violence.”
The TABC investigator also alleged that the club's DJ had concealed details about a September 2007 assault by disabling two video cameras while his girlfriend allegedly cleaned up part of the crime scene.

The owner of the bar, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, also told TABC investigators that Mexican Mafia members had approached her about a business merger, which she said she declined. Thursday, a number listed for the bar was disconnected, and the bar itself appeared closed.

According to a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the 13 patrons, about 50 people were at the saloon that night in 2007 when, around 1 a.m., “suddenly and without provocation” police “flooded” the bar, blocking the exits, turning off the music and turning on the lights. They cleared and blocked off the restrooms, asked everybody for identification and refused to let anyone leave.

The lawsuit contends the Police Department has an unconstitutional policy of conducting bar checks because, “without regard to the existence of probable cause” and without a search warrant, patrons are detained and prevented from leaving until the bar check is complete. In the Wild Turkey incident, that took almost an hour.

Particularly, the lawsuit says, there was no probable cause for the women's “intrusive strip search” in the restroom, and as a result, they are “physically and emotionally violated.” No drugs or weapons were found on any of the plaintiffs, none of whom was arrested.
But in responses to the lawsuit filed by attorneys for the officers and interviews conducted by police Internal Affairs investigators, a somewhat different scenario is described.

The bar had been having problems for months and was known as a place where Mexican Mafia gang members sold drugs, police said. As officers secured the scene, Sgt. Mark Randle said that to ensure officer safety, he advised the patrons that they could use the restroom but, before doing so, would be searched for weapons and drugs. No one, he said, could leave until vice officers completed the bar check.

As officers questioned patrons with gang-related tattoos, arresting several on outstanding warrants, a small bag of cocaine was found on the floor in the back right corner of the club near a group of women.
Some of those women asked if they could use the restroom and did not seem upset when Officer Diane Tritley said she would have to frisk them, according to her signed statement.

Another group of women in the same spot at some point became belligerent, and Officer Yvette Coz said she thought they were trying to conceal something under their table, according to responses to the lawsuit. She asked the women, whom she said were hostile and abusive, to allow her to frisk them for weapons.

At no time, Tritley and Coz maintained, did they search underneath the clothing of the approximately 12 women they frisked.
Because of the contradicting statements, a police investigator trying to determine whether any police policies were violated asked the female patrons to take a polygraph exam, but they declined. The officers never were asked to take such a test.

Eventually, the investigator deemed the four officers had conducted or condoned warrantless searches and recommended they be disciplined, even that a criminal case be pursued. Those criminal investigations are still pending, said First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg, as is the officers' appeal of their suspension.