O'Hare strip search suit settled 87 women who sued to share $1.9 million
By Michael Higgins Tribune staff reporter Published February 5, 2006
A group of 87 women agreed Friday to accept $1.9 million in compensation for what they said were illegal pat-downs and strip searches at O'Hare International Airport.
The women filed a federal lawsuit in 1997. Judson Miner, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said his clients were African-American women whom customs agents pulled out of line without cause and forced to submit to sometimes humiliating searches.
Jacquelyn Jordan-Akinola, a graduate student from Chicago, said she was strip-searched when she returned from Jamaica in July 1997.
Jordan-Akinola said about 70 percent of the passengers on her flight were white, but when she was steered into a line to be searched, she found herself among all black women.
"I was appalled," Jordan-Akinola said. "It was humiliating and disgusting. ... Why would I jeopardize my career and reputation to smuggle some drugs?"
She said Friday, "The money wasn't really the issue with me. ... We were able to bring attention" to the problem.
U.S. officials admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement, U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald's office said Friday.
But the former U.S. Customs Service, now part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, supervises agents more closely and is "doing a better job of documenting its reasons for doing the appropriate searches that are done," the statement said.
Federal agents don't need a court-issued warrant to conduct searches at the airport, only a "reasonable suspicion" that someone is carrying contraband, Fitzgerald's office said.
The plaintiffs had hoped to bring the case as a class action. But U.S. District Judge William Hart turned down their request.
The amount each woman received depended on the type of search and other factors, said Miner "I think our clients were quite happy ... on balance," Miner said.
Female customs agents conducted the searches.
Customs agents said they chose passengers to be searched based on factors such as who seemed nervous or gave inconsistent answers to questions, according to Miner. But Miner said those criteria were subjective and unreliable. He said the agents disproportionately searched black women, yet "they virtually never found drugs."
Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune