Woman Awarded $332,000 for Abuse at Jail

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 32-year-old Vista woman was awarded $332,000 in damages Wednesday after a Superior Court jury found that two female sheriff's deputies used excessive force when booking her into County Jail.

The verdict is the second in 10 weeks in which a Superior Court jury has found that deputies assigned to the jail at Vista have abused suspects being booked.

In Wednesday's decision, the jury also found that Kimberlee Bryant's constitutional rights were violated when she was stripped of her clothes and left naked in a rubber-walled "safety cell" where she was visible to a male nurse.

And the jury found that because of inadequate training, supervision and discipline of deputies, the Sheriff's Department displays "deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of the county's citizens."

After 3 1/2 days of deliberations, the jury made a series of findings that, for the most part, came down on the side of Bryant, a science teacher at a school camp operated by the county Office of Education.

"I want to thank the jury for believing me, and for just having the strength to stand up and say this can't go on, that these beatings and humiliations cannot happen," she said after the verdict. "I know that I'm not the only one. Other people should say something, stand up for themselves and say this is not right."

In July, a San Diego jury awarded $1.1 million to Jim Butler, 60, a former Navy chaplain, who had similarly sued the county and Sheriff John Duffy after he was beaten in the Vista jail.

Butler, who because of his challenge of the Sheriff's Department has become a magnet for other people complaining that they, too, have been mistreated in County Jail, said Monday's verdict is further evidence that the county must establish a review board over the Sheriff's Department.

"There are definitely untold other cases out there; there's no question about it," he said. "But it's still difficult to get them to come forward."

County Supervisor John MacDonald said the jury's finding not only gives further reason to establish a review board, but feeds consideration in establishing a department of corrections, independent of the Sheriff's Department, to run the jails.

"We hope that when there's a new sheriff, there will be improvement in the training and policies of the department. We have a lot of concern," MacDonald said. "It's costing taxpayers a lot of money."

Garrett W. Jones, the jury foreman, said he believes sheriff's deputies should be able to deal properly with jail inmates, no matter how uncooperative they might be.

"If the officer has been trained properly, with a degree of professionalism, excessive violence should not occur," said Jones, a 34-year-old engineer from Oceanside.

He said he was offended that Bryant was left naked for the length of time she was.

"Looking for potentially flammable objects should not take the amount of time it took to return her clothes," he said. "She should either have had her underwear returned, or a blanket provided to her, in a reasonable amount of time."

According to testimony during the trial, Bryant might have been left naked for an hour.

Asked what message he or fellow jurors may be sending to the Sheriff's Department, Jones said, "The verdict speaks for itself."

Sheriff John Duffy was unavailable for comment, a secretary said, and the department's public relations staff said late in the afternoon there was no reaction to the verdict because they were still waiting to hear of it officially.

The county will ask for a hearing before the trial judge, J. Morgan Lester, to reverse the verdict or at least reduce the amount of the award, said Deputy County Counsel Ricky Sanchez, who defended the county and the two deputies in the case.

He said he was confused because the jury initially found each of the two deputies, Connie McKenzie and Debra Haverkost, responsible for 30% of the award given to Bryant, and that the county was responsible for an additional 30% because of its poor training and discipline of deputies. The jury found Bryant 10% responsible for her own troubles because of her behavior in jail.

However, there were specific incidents in which the jury found the deputies, and not the county, liable for the damages, meaning the county did not have to pay a full third.

When, as a result, Lester ordered the jury to define the monetary award further, the jury decided that McKenzie and Haverkost were each responsible for $130,000 in damages to the Vista woman, and the county was responsible for $72,000 in damages.

Sanchez said the deputies' liability would be covered by the county as their employer.

Bryant's own attorney, Mary Topliff, said the judge will, at a later hearing, likely reduce the overall judgment by 10%, to reflect the jury's finding that Bryant was partly responsible for what happened to her because of her behavior.

Bryant was arrested by California Highway Patrol officers in May, 1987, for drunken driving, and was taken to the Vista jail for booking. The two CHP officers testified that Bryant, whose blood alcohol content was 0.15%--or 50% higher than the legal standard at the time--was belligerent toward the two sheriff's deputies when she was being booked.

The deputies testified that Bryant was combative and tried to swing at them. McKenzie said she instinctively grabbed for the woman's hair when she suddenly turned away from a wall and moved aggressively toward her--and that she continued holding her hair as the two fell to the ground, to prevent Bryant from hitting her head on a nearby wall.

The deputies then put Bryant in an isolation cell, where they took off her clothes to search them for matches. The cell has padded walls that are especially flammable.

But Bryant testified that she was kicked by the deputies and that Haverkost pushed her head down into a toilet opening flush to the floor, cutting her forehead. The deputies jerked her head up and down, she said, and kicked her in the sides.

All the while, she said, a male nurse was allowed to look into the room as she remained naked.

Bryant later pleaded no contest to the drunk driving charge, was fined and had her driver's license restricted for three months.

Among the various findings by the jury was that the deputies violated state law that restricts the undressing of people being booked by requiring, among other things, that the deputies have the written permission of a supervisor. No such written permission was obtained.

The law also requires that people who are undressed are to be out of view of people of the opposite sex.

Haverkost did not attend Wednesday's court session. But McKenzie, who did, maintained her innocence.

"If you talk to a law enforcement person, they'll think this whole trial was absurd," she said. "If you talk to someone in the community who isn't involved with us, they're going to think we're doing something wrong. They don't understand how messy the world really is. It would be nice if there was some way to educate people."

McKenzie has been with the department for seven years, four of them in the jails. She currently is on medical leave because of a herniated disc she said she sustained in a fight a year ago while trying to arrest a man under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

"I've had my legs slammed in car doors, I've been punched and kicked and thrown. I've had bruises that have lasted for months," she said.

"I don't think we're out there overreacting to what occurs. I can't tell you the times I've talked people out of things, to quell a disturbance. But those aren't the kinds of things you write about. It's not sensational. You present the one incident where things go amiss, and blow it up, and people think that's what's happening all the time.

"We didn't do anything wrong here. We did our job properly. I'm disappointed (by the verdict) but not surprised. Based on what the community sentiment is right now, I'm not surprised at all."

Among those in the courtroom was another deputy who removed his name tag and refused to identify himself, but who offered: "It's unfortunate that the only requirement to be on a jury these days is that you have a driver's license or you're registered to vote. They're not cops. They don't have a clue to what's happening.

"Don't you find it interesting," he said, "that an obnoxious, uncooperative, combative drunk challenges officers and three years later she's sitting here all prim and proper and pretty, and ends up on top?"

The jury acquitted McKenzie and Haverkost of the most serious charge, of assault and battery, and found that neither deputy acted against Bryant with malice or oppression, which meant they could not be assessed additional, punitive damages. It further found that the Sheriff's Department acts reasonably when it places people into a safety cell if they act violently.

But, by a 10-2 vote, the jury said the amount of force used on Bryant was unconstitutionally excessive and led to her injuries. (In civil lawsuits, a nine-juror majority is sufficient for a verdict.) By a unanimous vote, the jury found the strip search to be unreasonable.

And by a 9-3 vote, the jury agreed that the county has "a policy, practice and custom of failing to adequately train, supervise and discipline its employees, which reflects a deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights" of individuals.

Juror Russell J. White, 32, of Carlsbad said he agrees that the deputies used excessive force and failed to properly conduct the strip search, but disagrees that Bryant's constitutional rights were violated.

"I thought their actions were well within their duties as deputies," he said.

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