HONOLULU (KHON2) — The state has been ordered to pay $7 million to a former female inmate, who was illegally strip searched by a male deputy sheriff. Her attorneys say part of the reason for such a large payout was because the state tried to bury the investigation.
The attorneys for the victim say jurors clearly wanted to make a strong statement with that $7 million verdict. It only took an hour and 45 minutes for them to agree.
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The civil trial in federal court lasted only three weeks but it was years in the making. In 2014, two female inmates reported that they were strip searched by a male deputy sheriff at the cell block in Honolulu Circuit Court. One of them was Elizabeth Mueller.
“I felt like I was in a very compromising position, which made me feel weak,” she said. “I felt like I didn’t want to protest because I felt like he could make my situation worse.”
Attorneys say it was done inside a cell with the door wide open.
“Other sheriffs in the control room as well as any inmates walking by could see these women undressed in cell number one as they pass by,” said attorney Lanson Kupau.
The jury awarded Mueller the $7 million. Her attorneys say it’s because the Department of Public Safety tried to cover it up.
“When the accusation was confirmed by the investigation, they buried it,” said attorney Margery Bronster. “They didn’t give Elizabeth Mueller the opportunity to make a timely complaint.”
She says the delay prevented Mueller and the other inmate from filing sex assault charges due to the statute of limitations. Mueller adds that the deputy even admitted in court what he did.
“He doesn’t even see that he did something wrong, and I feel like that’s a failure of the department to train the officers,” said Mueller.
The deputy still works for DPS. So we asked why and what changes are being made to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
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A spokeswoman sent a statement saying, “All employees are afforded due process when potential discipline is involved… policies are under a constant process of review and revision.”
Mueller hopes that the verdict will encourage others to speak out for what’s right.