Tuesday, April 29, 2003
State Supreme Court Broadens Jailers’ Immunity From Suits
Justices Rule Unanimously That Man Held on Suspicion of Public Intoxication Was a ‘Prisoner’
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
A drunken individual who is temporarily detained in a local jail is a “prisoner” and cannot sue for injuries sustained as a result of being beaten by other inmates, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Unanimously overruling the trial judge and the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s Div. Three, the justices said the city of Newport Beach was entitled to the immunity provided by Government Code section 844.6(a)(2). The statute, subject to stated exceptions, provides that a public entity is not liable for “[a]n injury to any prisoner.”
An Orange Superior Court jury had awarded $172,000 to Craig Teter, who suffered a broken eye socket and concussion from being beaten by an inmate at the city jail in 1997. Teter claimed the city was negligent in failing to prevent the attack, and that the immunity did not apply because he was never charged with a crime and therefore wasn’t a prisoner.
But Justice Janice Rogers Brown, in her opinion for the high court, said there was no difference between prisoners and detainees when it came to a municipal government’s shield from such lawsuits. The court said that Teter was a prisoner even though Newport Beach released him without charges 12 hours after his arrest on suspicion of public intoxication.
“A lawfully arrested person who is brought into a law enforcement facility for the purpose of being booked becomes a prisoner, as a matter of law, upon his initial entry into the facility,” Brown wrote.
In rejecting the immunity, the lower courts had relied on Meyer v. City of Oakland (1980) 107 Cal.App.3d 770, in which the court held that the city could be held liable because it failed to transfer the apparently intoxicated individual to the city’s hospital-based civil detoxification facility, and then failed to protect the plaintiff from attack by other inmates.
Civil Detoxification Facility
Brown, however, noted that Newport Beach has no civil detoxification facility. And even if it had one, the justice said, Teter would still have been a prisoner and the city would still be immune.
“[W]e reject the underlying premise of the Meyer opinion-that a [Penal Code] section 647(f) arrestee being held in jail pending transfer to a civil detoxification facility is not a prisoner for the purposes of Government Code section 844.6(a)(2),” Brown wrote.
Given the legislative intent behind the immunity, she reasoned, it makes no sense to treat a city that has a civil detoxification facility any differently than one that does not.
Brown was joined by Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Marvin Baxter and Ming Chin. Justice Joyce L. Kennard, joined by Justices Kathryn M. Werdegar and Carlos Moreno, concurred in the result but said it was unnecessary to overrule Meyer since the cases were easily distinguishable.
Cities and counties often hold those arrested for public intoxication and release them without charges once they sober up.
Following last year’s Fourth District decision upholding Teter’s verdict, however, Newport Beach began charging all those arrested for public intoxication to protect itself from suits.
“Instead of kicking folks loose, they started charging everybody and sending the charges to the district attorney to make sure we got the benefit of immunity,” said Daniel Ohl, Newport Beach deputy city attorney. “My guess is that it will go back to the way it was.”
Teter’s attorney, Jean Balantine, declined comment.
The case is Teter v. City of Newport Beach, 03 S.O.S. 2174.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company