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“Give me $50 and I’ll tell you where he is,” the woman in the gray T-shirt hollers from her Garfield Heights stoop, at the humid end of a Saturday evening.
Attorney William Claiborne, who’s just climbed into the driver’s seat of his white Mazda Millenia, pauses and looks back at her. “Bring him to me,” Claiborne offers. “And I’ll give you the $50.”
Claiborne is looking for a man with the initials R.B. All he has is the guy’s name, plus the rumor attached to that nameheard through the courthouse grapevinethat R.B. was subjected to a perverse brand of police procedure: the anal-cavity search.
“You better be for real,” the woman says, walking up to the open car window. A few minutes ago, when Claiborne walked up to her on the stoop, she sized him up quicklybig frame, big dark sports coat, big Mobile, Ala., accentand simply rolled her eyes. She’d never heard of R.B. But with the attorney heading away, she has reconsidered. “Let me see your legal card,” she says.
Claiborne handles the conversation with ease. Sometimes finding clients just goes like this. “Neighbors don’t know him. [Then] they might know him, and maybe they could get word to him,” he later explains. Bartering is part of the legwork in police litigation.
He gives the woman a business card. “I’ll give this to him,” she says. “Give me $10….I’m going to give him this card for real.”
Claiborne offers her $20but only after R.B. calls him. Only after the phone call can she come to his office to claim her dough.
“I don’t have no money to be coming out to Northwest,” the woman argues. They settle on having him send her a money order. “You better not be lying to me,” she says before parting.
Claiborne tucks R.B.’s file between his seat and the gear shift and drives off. There are two other possible victims he wants to find tonight, both women. One was strip-searched in an auto-body shop, and another, he’s heard, was searched “before God and everybody” outside a Riggs bank.
Claiborne started his legal career working in banking, regulation, and tax law. He spent half a decade overseas, handling corporate contracts, before giving it up to become a trial lawyer. Restarting his career in the District, he picked up court-appointed cases. He soon concluded that the drug war had tilted the playing field in favor of the cops. A defense lawyer could only know so much about how that search that found those drugs really went down. So he went digging into those cop-on-suspect transactions in civil cases brought against the police department.
Within the past two years, Claiborne has developed a niche: the bad searchthe search that either ended rough or ended with the suspect’s pants around his ankles, his private parts exposed for any rubbernecker to see. It’s the kind of case other lawyers snicker at or simply refuse.
In a way, Claiborne believes he’s picking up where his father, who was active in the civil-rights movement, left off. “I feel like I’m walking in his footsteps when I’m doing the things I do,” he says. In the past five years, he has sued the D.C. police, by his estimation, roughly 40 times.
While the Metropolitan Police Department’s policy forbids open-air strip searches and stipulates that cavity searches can be conducted only by hospital physicians, the anal-cavity search is common enough to have become part of Superior Court culture, known simply as “goin’ in the butt.” Cops who do it are called “butt boys.” Talking about on-the-street strip searches, one former 6th District lieutenant, James Boteler, recalled in a Dec. 3, 2002, deposition: “I mean in the five years I was there, maybe five times a year.” Claiborne believes the former cop lowballed it.
Fritz Mulhauser, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, who has one pending strip-search lawsuit, says any data on the frequency of these searches are anecdotal. The defense lawyers and alleged victims he’s talked to on the subject say the practice is common.
When describing his mission, Claiborne will cite the King James Bible, Apocalypse Now, the priest pedophilia scandal, and Graham Greene. The District feels right out of Greene’s Our Man in Havana, he explains; officers know there are two kinds of people: “those that expect to be tortured and those that don’t. The police are very gifted at knowing which category someone falls into.” It’s his job to protect citizens who have learned to accept the butt search as routine. “There’s no excuse for it….You wouldn’t do that unless you felt complete, utter contempt for them.”
Last spring, Claiborne filed a class-action lawsuit against the D.C. Jail, representing thousands of former inmates who claimed that after the courts ordered them released, they were brought back to the jail for processing and needlessly strip-searched. Many more, Claiborne says, were overdetained.
In December, Claiborne filed another class-action lawsuit, this time against the U.S. Marshal’s Service over its alleged practice of strip-searching only female arrestees. In a late-April consent agreement, in response to the lawsuit, the service said it would “insure that [strip] searches will be applied even-handedly to both men and women arrestees and detainees.”
In addition to the trouble he has getting information from the D.C. Office of Corporation Council, Claiborne says his clients usually have arrest records and no apparent physical injuries. And usually when his clients tell him their stories, they are, at first, hard to believe. But he sees the cavity search as worse than garden-variety excessive force. In a cavity search, the attorney believes, a cop can’t claim self-defense or that he had to make a split-second decision. Such a search takes obvious malice.
None of this makes Claiborne’s cramped office look any less like the absent-minded professor’s. It doesn’t allow him to afford his own corps of private investigators, or the time to unload the clutter from his Mazda. “There’s an easier way of making a living,” he says. “A more refined type of law. I don’t know how I got the job of doing this. Somehow or another, this is my job now.”
Claiborne’s next stop is the 4200 block of Foote Street NE. He gets out and checks an address on one of his female victims. He comes back partially successful: “I found [her boyfriend’s] mom,” he reports. “I think Mom will hand off the message.”
It’s 7:10 p.m., and no faces to those names and addresses yet. Claiborne will have to wait for his future clients to tell their tales of bum searches.
Claiborne can summon outrage long after the old cases are put in storage. Like the case of the cop who pulled a baggie out of a woman’s vagina in the station house: The woman started bleeding profusely. The officer refused to let the woman wash her hands and took her back to a cell. “I asked the officer on examination, when she described the blood flow, ‘How do you know she wasn’t hemorrhaging?’ Claiborne recalls. “She just had no response. She didn’t even take the most basic steps.” He got the woman about $25,000 from a civil-suit settlement.
Last month, Claiborne filed a federal civil suit complaining that several officers had “butt checked” Robert Clarke “in front of a crowd of onlookers” outside the Benco strip mall along East Capitol Street. “In a particularly vicious twist on the ‘butt check’ routine, Defendant Joseph Jackson or Defendant Homer Littlejohn stuck his finger up Mr. Clarke’s rectum.”
“I want the department to be mindful of how they treat people,” Claiborne says, adding that one of his central motivations is to get rid of the “bully boys” on the force.
When he approaches a possible victim, Claiborne says, the first thing he does is drop the bad egg’s name. “If something really happened to them, and they’re gonna talk about it and they hear the cop’s name, they’ll just start ranting about the cop,” he explains. “That’s how you feel whether it’s realif there’s so much anger. If you’ve been humiliated by somebody, there’s just so much rage and anger that you feel towards them. You mention the cop’s namethat’s gonna come out.”
He says he won’t stop suing the department until it gets rid of the rough cops. “After a while, everybody’s got a budget,” he says. “What’s the deductible on a cop? How much money will the department pay out to protect a bad egg?”
Sunday evening, R.B. calls Claiborne on his cell phone. The would-be client wonders if his case is too old. “When did it happen?” the attorney asks. “How long is ‘a long time ago’?” Just a few yearsnot long enough for R.B. to forget that he filed a complaint against the police department and has heard nothing since.
“Do you want to bring a lawsuit?” Claiborne asks. The answer on the other end of the phone comes fast.
“You do?” Claiborne says, his tone quickening. “What was the cop’s name?” CP