The arrest of 71 bicyclists who staged a protest ride during the 2000 Democratic National Convention -- and the jailhouse strip-searches of the women -- was an embarrassing episode for a Los Angeles region striving to put on its best face as host of the political jamboree.
Three years later, Los Angeles County is preparing to pay for its role in the much-publicized incident. Today, the Board of Supervisors will consider a proposed $2.75-million settlement over its alleged mistreatment of the bicyclists in the county's Twin Towers jail. The cyclists also sued the city of Los Angeles, claiming wrongful arrest.
At the time, police said that the group whizzed through traffic, frightening pedestrians and nearly causing accidents. But many riders countered that they were calmly pedaling along -- accompanied by a police escort -- when the officers suddenly turned on them.
"Out of the blue, they cornered the riders and ordered them off their bikes," said Ron Milam, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, who was arrested. "There was no warning, no message to disperse. It was very scary. I mean, we just went on a bike ride. How did we end up in jail?"
Once behind bars, the class-action lawsuit alleged, the 23 women in the group were subjected to an illegal strip-search that included a visual body cavity examination. The men, who were taken to a separate unit, were not forced to undress.
Under California law, anyone arrested solely on a misdemeanor charge may not be strip-searched before arraignment unless the charge involves weapons, drugs or violence, or there is a reasonable suspicion that the person is concealing a weapon or contraband.
The county Claims Board, which reviews lawsuits filed against the county, concluded that the law "was not well understood and appropriately followed by jail personnel." The Sheriff's Department revised its jailhouse procedures in 2001 to prohibit pre-arraignment strip-searches except under the conditions permitted by state law.
"Unfortunately, it was a misunderstanding by just one jail, but it was the jail that holds the women," said sheriff's Cmdr. Chuck Jackson, who oversees the correctional services division.
In a written account filed in connection with the bicyclists' lawsuit, one woman described the fear and humiliation that she endured in jail, beginning with deputies marching the female cyclists, many of them wearing biking shorts and tank tops, past holding cells filled with jeering male prisoners.
The women were taken into a chilly, cinder-block hallway, turned to face the wall and told to undress. The visual examination by a "crew of belligerent uniformed officers" was "horrific and humiliating," the woman wrote.Both the male and female cyclists said that they were detained even after a judge ordered their release and that they were denied telephone calls and access to medication.
Most were released after two days, and the misdemeanor charges against them were soon dropped.
But even after the judge's release order, they were taken back to county jail for processing, where the females were strip-searched again.
All but two bicyclists joined the suit against the county, claiming emotional distress over their extended stay in jail and the strip-searches. When the Claims Board reviewed the case, it concluded that the county could be held liable for $5.75 million in damages if the case went to trial.
Two years ago, the county agreed to a record $27-million settlement to resolve several class-action lawsuits alleging that inmates were routinely held beyond their release dates and illegally strip-searched.
The county also recently settled two cases involving individual women who were illegally strip-searched, paying them each $150,000.
Under the terms of the bicyclists' proposed deal, each woman who was jailed will receive $70,000, and each man will get $5,000.