The city of Atlanta has paid more than $750,000 in damages to eight people who since 2007 have been subjected by Atlanta police to public body cavity and strip searches on city streets.
But the city is pushing back against a ninth complainta federal suit by a city worker who claims as many as five officers with the police department's disbanded Red Dog unit stopped him without cause on a city street in Atlanta's West End three years ago, yanked down his pants, and groped his genitals in a fruitless search for illegal drugs.
The suitwhich names Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and five current and former police officers as defendantswas filed "by a disgruntled city employee who is trying to piggyback on recent settlements," said Assistant City Attorney Eric Richardson. "We believe the allegation is false. We're not going to be extorted into paying a settlement for a case we believe is baseless. … Clearly, he is looking to piggyback on settlements he has seen other folks get from the city. We're not going to give him that."
But attorneys for Ricky Sampson, who works for the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management, argue that Sampson is just one more victim of heavy-handed, and often unconstitutional, tactics that city police have employed for years and that have shown little sign of abating despite a string of lawsuits that have successfully challenged humiliating police searches of civilians on city streets and other public venues.
"They assert Mr. Sampson's claims have no merit, but we have multiple independent witnesses who witnessed the events and have identified the officers," said attorney Mark Bullman of Glaser, Currie & Bullman, who is representing Sampson along with Atlanta attorney Brian Spears. Four affidavits supporting Sampson's story of how he was searched have been filed in the case. Sampson was not arrested or charged with a crime, Bullman said.
Bullman said he and Spears had attempted to settle Sampson's case. "It seemed foolish to litigate the issue," he said. "We had … a plethora of witnesses and the fact they had paid millions over these illegal practices. …. We understand that the city has every right to force this litigation. But why? … For goodness sakes, the officers wrote about the strip searches and anal cavity searches in their reports."
Spears said that the federal appellate courts and the U.S. Supreme Court have ruled repeatedly that individuals cannot be searched by police absent reasonable cause. The courts, he said, have been "unequivocal" in finding that body cavity and strip searches "must be done in a way that protects a person's privacy from unnecessary view of other persons."
"When you conduct these kinds of searches in public, you clearly are going well beyond what even in a jail setting the courts have allowed," Spears said. "They had as little reason to stop him on the street as they would any person coming out of the Fulton County Courthouse."
Sampson's allegations are reflected in an affidavit filed on his behalf by a former executive director of Atlanta's Civilian Review Board, which investigates allegations of police misconduct. In her affidavit, Cristina Beamuda former police officer in Rochester, N.Y., and a Massachusetts prosecutorsaid she repeatedly warned city officials about a "disturbing pattern" of public body cavity and strip searches that city police conducted without cause.
"It was clear that the supervisory and command structure of APD were aware these searches were taking place, and yet there was no apparent effort to stop this bizarre and inappropriate behavior by officers," wrote Beamud, who said she resigned in November 2011 after her warnings were ignored.