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San Diego settles two stripper lawsuits against police for nearly $1.5 million

San Diego settles two stripper lawsuits against police for nearly $1.5 million
Cheetahs Gentleman's Club on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard is, shown in 2003. (San Diego Union-Tribune)

The city of San Diego on Tuesday agreed to pay nearly $1.5 million to settle a pair of lawsuits involving more than a dozen exotic dancers who claimed their constitutional rights were violated during raids at two San Diego strip clubs more than four years ago.

The 17 dancers who worked at Cheetahs Gentleman’s Club and Exposé, both in Kearny Mesa, claimed they were held against their will and subjected to demeaning searches by 10 San Diego police officers on July 15, 2013, and March 6, 2014.

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News of the raids was picked up by several media outlets and sparked a national conversation about constitutional rights.

On Tuesday, the San Diego City Council approved two settlements in two lawsuits stemming from the raids. The first settlement awarded $110,000 to one dancer. The second awarded nearly $1.4 million to 16 dancers.

Attorney Dan Gilleon, who represented the 16 dancers, said the settlement was validating for his clients, who have long felt that their rights were violated.

“I think now [city leaders] are learning that they can't go out there and mistreat a bunch of women and think that the community isn’t going to care just because they choose to take their clothes off to make a living,” Gilleon said.

Hilary Nemchik, a spokeswoman for the City Attorney’s Office, said city authorities planned to review the processes that govern how police inspect strip clubs to see “if they can be improved and make changes as appropriate.”

According to the complaint, the officers showed up in bulletproof vests and ordered the scantily-clad dancers into a dressing room. The officers then checked the women’s city-issued adult entertainer permits and asked about and photographed their tattoos and piercings.

Some of the officers “made arrogant and demeaning comments to the entertainers and ordered them to expose body parts so that they could ostensibly photograph their tattoos,” the complaint read.

The dancers said the process lasted more than an hour and that they were threatened with arrest when they asked to leave.

Lawyers for San Diego police initially asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing the search and seizure was reasonable as laid out by the city’s permitting law that allows police to inspect adult entertainment businesses. Police have also said that cataloging tattoos is an easy way to identify dancers who regularly change their appearance.

U.S. District Judge M. James Lorenz disagreed and allowed the lawsuit to go forward.

What still remains unclear is whether the settlements will prompt the city to change its ordinance that governs strip club inspections.

In March, the same federal judge ruled that the Municipal Code doesn’t clearly limit the power of police to use the ordinance to infringe on the rights of dancers and is therefore unconstitutional.

“The Inspection Provision does not prevent the Chief of Police from using inspections as a means of harassing and discouraging adult entertainment businesses, and therefore violated the 1st Amendment on its face,” the order read.

The city said in March that the order was being reviewed.

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