By MARK TOOR | Posted: Monday, June 17, 2013

A five-year-veteran Correction Officer is suing the city in Federal court, saying he was strip-searched by his supervisors in a an effort to find contraband.

“I have never had someone take one of my members into the Warden’s office in front of Captains and tell them to take off his clothes,” Norman Seabrook, head of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, told the Daily News, which was the first to report on the lawsuit. “It is unacceptable.”

Felt He Couldn’t Refuse

The suit said that the officer, Elio Soto, 35, cooperated with the search because he did not feel he could refuse an order. “Additionally, no Department of Correction policy nor any statement by any supervisor provided Soto with notice that he could refuse any of the searches at issue herein without disciplinary or other legal consequences,” according to the suit.

“If you say no to an order, it’s an automatic suspension,” Mr. Soto told the News. “I can’t lose this job. I have a family to feed.”

Correction Department spokesman Robin Campbell said, “”A search of staff was conducted in January. It was based on reasonable suspicion and sound legal authority and was done in a careful manner that fully respected the rights of all involved.”

Mr. Soto’s troubles began during a random search Jan. 17 at the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island. “Soto was subjected to a canine search although he was not an inmate...and was not suspected of possessing contraband,” according to the suit.

What's That Ointment?

The two Captains conducting the random search asked Mr. Soto if he was in possession of contraband. Mr. Soto denied it but was asked to empty his pockets, which contained, among other items, a tube of ointment for a skin inflammation. He explained that the tube contained medicine, not contraband.

Mr. Soto was confined to the office of Warden Louie Rivera, who told him that the dog had smelled narcotics on him and asked him to empty his pockets again. When no contraband was found, two canine searches were conducted, both of which indicated that Mr. Soto had an unauthorized substance, the suit said.

“The ‘K-9’ officer commented that the dog was trained to smell the scent of certain batteries and Soto had a small flashlight in his duty belt with those types of batteries,” according to the suit. He removed the flashlight but a third canine search turned up positive.

“At this point, the only thing left in Soto’s pocket was the medication,” the suit said. Capt. Vincent Valerio “then demanded that Soto report whatever contraband he had. Soto stated that he did not have contraband, just the medication.” A half-hour later, Mr. Valerio ordered Mr. Soto to submit to a strip-search, the suit said. Another Captain, Melvin Barnaby, conducted the search, telling Mr. Soto specifically to take off his underwear, according to the suit.

“Barnaby then instructed Soto to squat and cough (doing so is designed to force removal of any contraband in Soto’s rectum),” the suit said. “Soto complied and no contraband was discovered...

This procedure being performed on a Correction Officer was unprecedented at the DOC.”

Officers then searched Mr. Soto’s car before allowing him to leave, according to the suit.

None of the searches “were conducted with any reasonable suspicion that Soto possessed any contraband,” the suit asserts.

Mr. Soto was reassigned without explanation after the incident to a location with video surveillance, the suit said. It said he suffered “severe emotional stress consisting of depression, insomnia, anxiety, irritability and disruptions of both appetite and sleep. He is under treatment of both a medical physician and a licensed clinical social worker for these conditions.”

Contributing to his upset were rumors that he had been arrested and inquiries from co-workers about what had happened, the suit said.

Mr. Soto is represented by Koehler and Isaacs.