L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca can be sued for jail violence, court rules
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca isn’t shielded from liability for racial gang violence in the jails he supervises, a federal appeals court ruled Monday in sending a stabbing victim’s lawsuit to trial.
Dion Starr, who says he was stabbed 23 times by Latino gang members while in custody at Men’s Central Jail five years ago, alleges in his lawsuit that Baca showed “deliberate indifference” to the dangerous conditions in the jails.
Baca knew or should have known about the hazards posed to guards and inmates as they were brought to his attention by a special investigator’s report that the county lockups were “outdated, understaffed and riddled with security flaws,” Starr’s suit contends.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in February that Baca could be sued by the inmate, who alleged that the sheriff’s failure to correct the security deficiencies made him ultimately responsible.
In the lawsuit, Starr alleges that a deputy unlocked his cell door, letting in Latino gang members who had massed outside the cell he shared with another African American.
Baca was made aware of racial violence in the county jails in a 2005 report by special counsel Merrick Bobb that detailed previous incidents involving deaths or injuries to county jail inmates, including five inmate-on-inmate killings during a six-month period beginning in late 2003, Starr’s suit alleges. It also noted that county jail conditions have been the target of federal investigations and critical reports since 1996.
A federal judge in Los Angeles threw out Starr’s lawsuit in 2008, citing U.S. Supreme Court rulings that top law enforcement officials can’t be held personally liable for discriminatory actions of their subordinates.
The 9th Circuit panel majority said those high court decisions didn’t apply to the constitutional violations that Starr alleges.
Judge Stephen Trott, the dissenter, argued that Starr hadn’t adequately connected the sheriff to the security failures that led to his injury.
The panel also denied an appeal, made by Baca in February, for a full 11-judge panel of the 9th Circuit to reconsider his immunity claim.
The Sheriff’s Department referred comment to a county attorney, who called it disappointing. “We think they got it wrong,” said Assistant County Counsel Roger Granbo.
Granbo said officials had yet to determine whether the county has grounds to petition the Supreme Court.
Granbo also disputed the inmate’s allegation that he’d been stabbed multiple times, saying medical records showed he received only shallow lacerations on his face.