State to pay $1.2M
to inmates not
freed on time

The ACLU had sued
over red-tape delays in
court-ordered releases

When a jury found Gregory Tapaoan not guilty of kidnapping and terroristic threatening in January 2001, he was ready to walk out of the courtroom into the waiting arms of his family.

But relief turned to disbelief moments later when deputy sheriffs handcuffed and shackled him, took him back to the cellblock, forced him to don a prison jumpsuit and had him transported back to prison, where he was subjected to multiple strip searches like any other prisoner.

Tapaoan's experience was typical, and led to a federal civil-rights lawsuit filed in December 2001 by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of hundreds of plaintiffs who were illegally detained and subjected to strip and cavity searches.

"It's like you know you're right and having your freedom just taken away, and there ain't nothing you can do about it -- that's the worst feeling," Tapaoan said yesterday as he looked back on his return to prison, where he had spent nine months awaiting trial, convinced he was innocent but unable to post $75,000 bail.

The state has agreed to pay $1.2 million in a settlement of the class-action lawsuit to compensate defendants for being incarcerated beyond their release dates as a result of "bureaucratic red tape," Mark Davis, one of three plaintiff attorneys from the law firm Davis Levin Livingston Grande, announced yesterday.

He credited state Attorney General Mark Bennett for getting involved and understanding that the system needed to be fixed.

The number of claimants is estimated to be anywhere from 200 to as many as 500 who were illegally detained between December 1999 and December 2002. They include defendants who were not immediately released after being placed on supervised release, released on their own recognizance, granted probation or a deferral of their plea or whose sentence expired because credit was given for time already served.

Claimants are expected to receive pro-rata shares of the settlement, with maximum payments of $1,000 for each day that they were illegally detained, and an additional $3,000 if they were strip-searched, Davis said.

Susan Dorsey, ACLU attorney, called the settlement a fair resolution to a difficult and cumbersome case that has been litigated for the past few years.

"Important safeguards are now being implemented statewide so that these serious constitutional violations won't occur in the future," she said.

Because of the lawsuit, judges have been releasing acquitted defendants directly from the courtrooms since December 2002, Dorsey said.

The lawsuit has resulted in better communication between the Department of Public Safety and the Judiciary, and is supposed to help everyone see to it that inmates ordered released by the court are released in a timely manner, said Deputy Attorney General Kendall Moser.

Past practice was for inmates who were acquitted or had their cases dismissed to be transported back to prison and released once all the paperwork approving their release was received by the prison.

Some defendants were held for a few hours, to as long as three months for one defendant, Dorsey said.

Most often, the reason given for the delays was lost or late paperwork. In Tapaoan's case it took two days for his paperwork to be processed before he was finally set free. During that time, he was denied requests to contact his attorney or call his family, an experience he said left him bitter.

U.S. Magistrate Leslie Kobayashi has given preliminary approval to the settlement and has scheduled an April 26 hearing to decide whether it is in the best interests of the plaintiff class.

Tapaoan said he hopes the settlement means no one has to go through what he and others did.

The day he was acquitted, his mother and family members were expecting to see him walk out of the courtroom a free man. "For her to see her son going back was devastating," he said.

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