BANGOR, Maine — The eight jurors were ready and waiting to hear evidence in a trial alleging an illegal strip-search of a local woman three years ago at Penobscot County Jail.
The court reporter’s fingers were poised over her machine.
The lawyers were jotting down last-minute notes in anticipation of their opening arguments.
So when the clerk asked, “Is everyone ready?” the answer expected was a resounding “yes.”
Instead, the attorneys for the plaintiff and the defendant asked for a couple more minutes and went into the hallway outside the courtroom to confer. When they returned, Dale Thistle, who represents Tina Oxley, 37, of Bangor and Peter Marchesi, who represents the jail, informed the clerk they had reached a settlement and there would be no trial.
After the jury was dismissed, both men said details of the settlement were confidential and had to be approved by the Penobscot County commissioners. The commissioners are scheduled to meet today.
Information about the settlement could be made public by county officials, if it is accepted. Settlements reached in lawsuits filed against other county jails over strip-searches have been made public.
U.S. District Judge John Woodcock, who earlier this year ruled the case could go forward, brought jurors into the courtroom to tell them the trial had been canceled and to thank them for their service.
“Apparently, the lawyers in this case looked at you, got cold feet and got very nervous,” Woodcock said in dismissing the six women and two men who had been selected to serve on the jury. “And they went outside and settled the case.”
The judge jokingly asked the jurors to return for the next civil trial and repeat the process in September.
The last-minute settlement apparently was what Oxley wanted.
“My client is a very anxious and nervous person, partly as a result of these events [which led to the lawsuit],” Thistle of Newport said after the jury was dismissed. “She’s never quite gotten over it and wanted to conclude the matter without two or three days of direct examination and cross-examination and without having to face again the people who did this to her.”
Thistle said he supported his client’s decision but had been confident jurors would have issued a verdict in Oxley’s favor.
“The case was settled on terms that were agreeable to both parties,” Marchesi of Waterville said on behalf of jail officials.
Oxley sued the jail in January 2009, two years after her arrest, claiming she should not have been strip-searched because there was no suspicion that she was concealing drugs, weapons or evidence of a crime. Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, such suspicion is required before a person can be strip-searched, according to the lawsuit.
The county, however, argued that Oxley was legally strip-searched because a bag of cocaine was found in the pocket of a passenger in her car who was arrested at the same time for unpaid fines. The two women rode to the jail together in the back of a squad car, and Oxley’s handcuffs came undone by themselves, according to court documents.
The other woman had the opportunity to pass the drugs to Oxley, according to the trial brief filed by Marchesi last month. Jail officials contended that Oxley was strip-searched to ensure she was not smuggling drugs into the facility.
Oxley sought compensatory damages for counseling and emotional distress and punitive damages because her constitutional rights allegedly were violated. She did not seek class-action status for her lawsuit.
Over the past five years, York and Knox counties have settled large class-action lawsuits over strip-searches. Damages totaling $3 million in each of these cases were awarded to plaintiffs who could show they had been strip-searched illegally.