Friday, June 28, 2002
County Can Be Liable for Sheriff’s Action as Jailer, Court Rules
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
Los Angeles County can be held liable for the death of an inmate who was beaten in jail after Sheriff’s Department guards allegedly ignored his family’s pleas that he be moved to a safer cell, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The ruling in the lawsuit brought by the family of Mauricio Avalos builds on previous Ninth Circuit decisions that a county sheriff acts as final policymaker for the county in running the jails. Sheriff Lee Baca’s policy of keeping Avalos, a former gang member, in a cell with other gang members who beat him to death on July 25, 1999 was a decision for which the county must be held responsible, the three-judge panel said.
The ruling upheld a decision by U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson of the Central District of California, who threw out the county’s summary judgment motion. Wilson rejected the county’s theory that the sheriff acted on the state’s behalf when setting public safety policies, and that only the state therefore could be held liable.
The trial judge found that the county could be held liable for Baca’s actions because the sheriff was acting as the county’s final policymaker in deciding where in the jail to keep Avalos, according to court papers.
Circuit Judge Warren J. Ferguson, who wrote the opinion, concluded:
“Just as public school administrators may be held accountable for violence and harassment occurring on school grounds, so too are sheriffs responsible to prevent and quell violence in the jail, not as law enforcement officials, but as administrators wielding control over persons entrusted to their custody.”
In reaching its conclusion, the appellate panel found particularly salient California’s constitutional designation of sheriffs as “county officers,” and that statutory provisions grant counties the “ultimate power over the jail.”
Furthermore, the circuit judges noted, the county, and not the state, must indemnify sheriffs for any monetary judgments against them.
The circuit judges found that jail officials transferred Avalos under the sheriff’s policy of segregating gang members after they learned he had tattoo associated with a gang.
“Because this policy was established and implemented by the sheriff as the jail administrator, he was acting on behalf of the county in placing Avalos in the gang unit of the jail,” Ferguson wrote.
Avalos initially was held in the general population of the jail, where he was awaiting trial for armed robbery, according to court documents.
Although he disavowed any relationship with a gang prior to his incarceration, Avalos was placed in the gang unit, according to court documents.
He immediately became a target of threats and assaults by the gang inmates, and he and his family asked that Avalos be transferred to another cell.
But five of his cellmates attacked him. Avalos died from injuries suffered in the assault. His heirs’ lawsuit will now proceed in federal court.
The case is Cortez v. County of Los Angeles, 00-56781.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company