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Muslim woman sues Ventura County Sheriff's Department, says deputies forced her to remove hijab while jailed

Muslim woman sues Ventura County Sheriff's Department, says deputies forced her to remove hijab while jailed
Jennifer Hyatt claims in a federal lawsuit that Ventura County Sheriff's Department deputies removed her hijab and refused to give her an alternate form of cover when they arrested her last year, a move that would fly in the face of federal law. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

A Muslim woman filed a federal lawsuit against the Ventura County Sheriff's Department on Monday, claiming deputies forced her to remove her head scarf while in custody last year, a move that runs counter to established case law protecting the religious rights of people in police custody.

In the lawsuit, Jennifer Hyatt, a 44-year-old registered nurse from Newbury Park, claims a deputy snatched her head covering and refused to give it back or provide her an alternate form of cover when she was detained by the Sheriff's Department for several hours on New Year's Day in 2017.

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In the Muslim faith, some observant women follow an interpretation of the Koran that requires them to cover their heads and much of their bodies for the sake of modesty and dignity.

When Hyatt protested that she could not be in the presence of men without her hijab because she is a practicing Muslim, a deputy replied, "Not in here, you're not," according to the suit.

"I was spoken to like I was trash and deserved everything that was happening to me while in custody," Hyatt said in a statement issued Monday by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "My hijab was yanked off my head in front of many men despite my continued requests to wear it, I felt naked and humiliated the entire duration of my custody. I am seeking justice because I do still have the right to be a covered Muslim woman — even in jail."

A Sheriff's Department spokesman declined to comment on pending litigation or discuss the nature of Hyatt's arrest.

Hyatt was arrested after a dispute with her husband in Thousand Oaks, according to Marwa Rifahie, an attorney with CAIR in Los Angeles.

An off-duty Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy noticed the two arguing and separated them before calling local authorities, Rifahie said. But when Ventura County deputies arrived, they ignored Hyatt's complaints of injuries and arrested her on suspicion of domestic battery, according to Rifahie.

Hyatt's husband bailed her out of jail four hours later, and the charges were later dismissed, Rifahie said. The district attorney's office did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

The deputies' alleged conduct could be seen as a violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects the rights of prisoners to observe their chosen faith, including access to certain types of garments or diets, unless the need would compromise security.

Similar conduct by other California law enforcement agencies has led to swift reprisals in court. After Orange County sheriff's deputies ordered a Muslim woman to remove her head scarf while she was being detained in a Santa Ana courthouse, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2011 the deputies had violated federal law. Last year, the city of Long Beach paid $85,000 to a Muslim woman who was forced to remove her head scarf by officers arresting her on a shoplifting warrant.

Many of the region's largest law enforcement agencies have written policies directing officers and deputies to make accommodations for the religious rights of detained people. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which operates the country's largest jail system, directs deputies to allow inmates to wear garments that conform to their religious beliefs, according to Nicole Nishida, an agency spokeswoman.

Capt. Rolando Solano, the commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's Custody Services Division, said officers may ask that a person remove a religious garment, such as a hijab, but only briefly for a search. LAPD officers would then either return the person's original covering or provide them with a transparent one in order to ensure the item isn't being used to hide weapons, Solano said.

The LAPD does make efforts to stop people in custody from feigning religious observance to gain certain privileges, such as better food, and will sometimes ask for help from clergy members of various faiths to handle such situations, Solano said.

"Some people tend to try to fake a religious affiliation, so we have chaplains on call and we would bring them in and they would interview them, whatever faith they are," Solano said.

Hyatt's attorneys said she posed no threat to the deputies who refused to return her head covering.

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"Though Ms. Hyatt protested against the removal of her religious head wear, Ventura County sheriff's deputies continued to prohibit her from wearing any head-covering during her entire time in County custody, even though she had been thoroughly searched and did not pose any valid security concerns," the suit said.

The Sheriff's Department exonerated the deputies involved in the incident after Hyatt filed an internal affairs complaint last year, according to Rifahie.

Rifahie said the incident speaks to a larger issue involving the treatment of Muslim women who choose to cover themselves under a hijab. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has handled a number of cases in recent years involving students and employees who have been denied the right to wear the clothing that conforms to their faith.

"The hijab issue, and a woman's right to wear it, comes up all the time. A lot of our bullying cases involve female students having their hijabs tugged and pulled," Rifahie said.

Erin Darling, who is also representing Hyatt, said he hopes the suit will compel the Sheriff's Department to protect the rights of inmates.

"Big picture, my hope is that the county of Ventura follows the law and permits religious head wear among all detainees," he said. "Whether it's a woman wearing a hijab or a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke."

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.

UPDATES:

4:45 p.m.: This article was updated with a response from the sheriff's department.

This article was originally published at 11:15 a.m.

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