The policy of strip-searching inmates held for minor offenses at the Burlington and Essex County jails is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled this month.

More than 10,000 people arrested for minor crimes have been strip-searched at the facilities since 2003, a practice that could end up costing the counties millions of dollars, said Susan Chana Lask, a New York lawyer suing the jails.

"They just think the law stops at their doors, and they can do whatever they want," Lask said. "I'm fighting it and winning it to make sure constitutional rights are not stripped away in prison."

Similar lawsuits are pending against other county jails in New Jersey. The Camden County jail agreed in 2007 to pay $7.5 million to as many as 20,000 people strip-searched while held on minor charges.

Lask's case grew out of a lawsuit she filed on behalf of Albert Florence, a New Jersey man arrested while driving on I-295 in Burlington County in 2005.

A police check revealed that he had an outstanding warrant in Essex County for failing to pay a court fine, even though Florence produced documentation to show the fine had been paid.

He was held in the Burlington County jail for six days before being transferred to the Essex County jail. Florence said he was strip-searched at both facilities.

Lask successfully argued to make the case a class action, encompassing anyone strip-searched at either jail since 2003 while held on minor, "non-indictable" charges.

Burlington County jail officials argued that their procedures for inmates held on such offenses amounted to a "visual observation" of their bodies, not the more intrusive strip-search required for serious offenders.

They said the inspection of the nude inmates was necessary to ensure they were not smuggling contraband, to identify gang members through tattoos, and to detect health issues, such as evidence of the MRSA virus.

But District Judge Joseph Rodriguez said subjecting those arrested for minor violations to a strip search was unconstitutional unless there was "reasonable suspicion" they were carrying contraband.

"Thus, a hypothetical priest or minister arrested for allegedly skimming the Sunday collection would be subjected to the same degrading procedure as a gang member arrested on an allegation of drug charges," Rodriguez wrote in his Feb. 4 opinion.

He called that an "unreasonable result" of the jail's policy.

Rodriguez said federal circuit courts had "split" in recent years over whether strip-searches without reasonable suspicions are unconstitutional.

J. Brooks DiDonato, an attorney for Burlington County, said he could not comment at length on the case.

"The county fully intends on appealing and defending the case vigorously," he said.

A spokesman for the county could not be reached yesterday evening.

Lask said typical settlements for plaintiffs in these cases range from $1,500 to $3,000 each. She said she hoped to have a jury trial soon to determine damages.