Monday, February 8, 2010
Ninth Circuit Rules Against Inmates in Suit Over Prolonged Detention
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday affirmed a judgment throwing out suits against Sheriff Lee Baca by three jail detainees whose court-ordered releases in 2000 and 2001 were allegedly delayed for up to 29 hours without cause.
The panel said that its 2004 order overturning a prior dismissal did not preclude U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson of the Central District of California from considering the merits of the sheriff’s summary judgment motion.
Pregerson originally granted summary judgment in the suit by Roger Mortimer, Anthony Hart, and Rodney Berry in 2003. In doing so, he rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that by delaying releases “until the system, in its sweet time...is ready to make releases,” the sheriff was implementing a policy of deliberate indifference to constitutional rights.
Pregerson cited Brass v. County of Los Angeles, 328 F.3d 1192 (9th Cir. 2003), in which the court held that the county’s system for processing inmates out of the jail after their releases were ordered did not amount to deliberate indifference to inmates’ rights.
But in Berry v. Baca (2004) 370 F.3d 764, the Ninth Circuit reversed, saying the case was distinguishable from Brass because the plaintiffs were challenging the implementation of the processing system, rather than the system itself.
The plaintiffs, the Berry court went on to say, had established that they were entitled to release within a reasonable time once the charges against them were dismissed, that their releases were delayed for more than a day, and that the delays were the result of the sheriff’s release policies. What was left unresolved, the court said, were the reasonableness of the policies.
On remand, Pregerson ruled—in 2007—that the steps taken by the sheriff to eliminate prolonged over-detention were reasonable in light of the fact that tens of thousands of detainees are released each year. Those steps included an “in-court release program,” implemented in 2001, which allows inmates to be released at the courthouse, rather than returned to the jail for processing, unless a database check shows outstanding holds or warrants.
Of more than 50,000 detainee releases during the period covered by the class action allegations, the judge explained, no more than 43 could potentially be considered “overdetentions.”
Writing for the court yesterday, Judge Consuelo Callahan rejected the argument that the “law of the case” doctrine requires a trial on the plaintiffs’ claims.
“Because we recognized in Berry that the district court had not addressed the evidence of deliberate indifference, comments in the opinion concerning deliberate indifference do not amount to an actual decision as to the sufficiency of the evidence,” the judge wrote. “To hold otherwise would be inequitable and inefficient. Defendant would be prejudiced. Because the district court did not address the evidence of deliberate indifference, the defendant had no reason to present his facts and arguments on this issue to the Ninth Circuit.”
Callahan added that even if the doctrine were otherwise applicable, the judgment would be upheld under the “substantially different evidence” exception. There was, the judge wrote, “considerably more and different evidence” before the court in 2007 than there had been five years before.
The appellate jurist went on to say that Pregerson was correct in ruling, on the merits, that the policies that caused delays in releasing the plaintiffs did not amount to deliberate indifference.
“Although there continue to be over-detentions, they are a very small percentage of the total number of inmate releases. In a jail system as large as that of Los Angeles County, there are bound to be some errors due to employee negligence or honest mistakes,” Callahan wrote. “However, given the LASD’s many affirmative efforts to remedy the problem, the evidence in the record will not support a finding of a policy of deliberate indifference.”
Callahan was joined by Judge Kim M. Warlaw and U.S. District Judge Ralph R. Beistline of the District of Alaska, sitting by designation.
The case was argued on appeal by Marion R. Yagman of Yagman & Yagman & Reichman for the plaintiffs, and Michael D. Allen of Franscell, Strickland, Roberts & Lawrence for the sheriff.
The case is Mortimer v. Baca, 07-5593.
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