Wednesday, August 15, 2001
Board Agrees to Pay $27 Million to Settle Former Inmates’ Suit
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Los Angeles County supervisors yesterday offered to pay $27 million to settle a lawsuit by former inmates who claim they were wrongfully kept jailed after their release date or locked up on warrants that sheriffs’ deputies knew to be faulty.
The board made the offer after a closed session to discuss the federal class action that names more than 20 plaintiffs. County officials estimate that the class size could number as many as 400,000 former inmates improperly jailed since April 1996.
The proposed settlement also would cover ex-inmates who were improperly strip-searched after they were ordered released by the court.
A key part of the agreement is a commitment by the Sheriff’s Department to reform its system for processing, on average, the 2,000 inmates each day who are ordered released because they posted their bail, were ordered out on their own recognizance, were acquitted, or had charges dropped.
Plaintiff’s lawyer Barrett S. Litt of Litt and Associates in Los Angeles lauded Sheriff Lee Baca for already improving the system, which Litt said was inherited from the late Sheriff Sherman Block’s administration.
Instead of taking such ex-inmates back to jail—-where they routinely have been strip-searched, then held for days while officers ran computer checks to determine whether they were wanted in other jurisdictions—-they are to be set free at the courthouse.
Inmates without a ride home will be given bus fare.
If for some reason inmates must be returned to jail before release, there no longer will be strip body-cavity searches, and actual release is to come within eight hours of the time deputies run their release data on their computer system.
The settlement also affects inmates in jail whose sentences have expired. Such inmates would have to be released by midnight of the final day of their sentences.
“This settlement saves the taxpayers the expense of housing people who should be free, gets people out quickly and without being searched, ends the county’s exposure to claims like these in the future, and resolves the current claims at substantially less than they might have cost after a trial,” Litt said.
Plaintiffs’ attorney John Burton of Pasadena said Block instituted the system that caused all the problems in an effort to address claims that “a few” inmates were released erroneously.
Litt, Burton and other members of the plaintiffs’ team appeared with Baca yesterday at a news conference at sheriff’s headquarters to discuss the settlement.
County officials said discussions began in February, after the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the county could be held liable for the Sheriff’s Department practices.
County lawyers had argued that the sheriff simply was carrying out the policies of the state and had little discretion in doing so. But Judge Kim Wardlaw said the policy was a local one, and that the county and not the state would be held liable if the sheriff was found to have acted improperly.
The settlement would apply to several lawsuits filed in Los Angeles Superior Court and a number of civil rights suits under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 filed in federal court. Class certification was pending.
The suits made a variety of allegations against the Sheriff’s Department, but all stem from the department’s processing of inmates who have been ordered released.
Since they were taken back to jail, they were stripped searched, in accordance with department policies for all inmates admitted or readmitted to jail.
Before clearing inmates for release, sheriff’s officials have run their names through the Automated Justice Information System, a computerized database that indicates whether there are outstanding warrants or appearance orders elsewhere.
But instead of running the AJIS check immediately, department officials acknowledged that it has been their practice to first wait until all new “wants and holds” for local inmates are entered into the system.
That means inmates stay in jail for two days—-or, some allege, as much as two weeks—-beyond their release dates while officials wait for computer time and complete their processing.
The settlement also covers suits alleging arrests and detentions based on warrants that department officials know to be faulty. A person brought in for processing who complains he or she is not one named on the warrant will now be entitled to a fingerprint check. If it is the wrong person, the watch commander will be authorized to release him or her.
The county’s first payment would be to the plaintiffs’ lawyers. Burton, Litt, and Robert C. Moest of Santa Monica, along with other counsel, would split $5.5 million in fees and costs, to be paid by Sept. 1.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers also include Robert Mann, Donald W. Cook, and Tim Midgley from the law firm of Manes and Watson, and Mary Anna Henley and Miguel Garcia.
The agreement calls for the payment even if the federal court does not approve the class damages portion of the settlement.
A monitoring team led by plaintiffs’ counsel would be in place through Dec. 31, 2004 to assure the Sheriff’s Department sticks to its commitment to implement new procedures to prevent “overdetentions,” unlawful body cavity searches and arrests made on improper warrants.
Instances of noncompliance will result in penalty payments of up to $10,000 per quarter. The Sheriff’s Department would make such payments to a Cy Pres fund used exclusively for inmate programs and community organizations that benefit people at risk of incarceration.
As for damages, $21.5 million would be paid to fund an account from which class member claims and attorney fees would be paid. The Board of Supervisors is to authorize an immediate payment to the fund of $500,000, with $9 million due Sept. 1, another $9 million the following September and $3 million the September after that.
More than 20 named plaintiffs would split about $750,000 in damages. Most class members, who must file claims, are expected to receive $50 to $5,000 from the fund.
A website has been set up for information for possible class members. The address is www.rosenthalco.com/jail.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company