Judge Pares Class Action Over Poor Jail Conditions

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – A federal judge on Friday tossed part of an Oakland woman’s proposed class action alleging her constitutional rights were violated when she was put in an Alameda County jail cell stained with feces and blood and refused menstrual pads.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Kandis Westmore’s order came after a hearing Thursday in which she said allegations that lead plaintiff Cynthia Turano will again be arrested on trumped-up domestic violence charges leveled by her ex-husband and subjected to filthy conditions at Santa Rita Jail were too speculative to warrant an injunction ordering the sheriff’s office to clean up the jail.  

In August 2016, the Alameda County Sheriff signed onto a federal settlement agreement in Weills v. Gregory J. Ahern over filthy conditions at Santa Rita similar to those described by Turano, in which it agreed to strict requirements for keeping jail cells clean and to give inmates easy access to menstrual pads. Turano was arrested four months later, in December, and claims sheriffs’ officials failed to keep their end of the bargain.

“I just note that this happened in 2016 and this is now 2019,” Westmore said Thursday. “I don’t see any sort of pattern of [Turano’s ex-husband] repeatedly calling the police to have her arrested that would make her concern one that would satisfy the standard the courts would look at in deciding imminent harm or whether the threat is speculative.”

Turano sued Oakland and its police department, and Alameda County and its sheriff’s office, in December 2017 over her incarceration at Santa Rita in Dublin, 25 miles east of Oakland, for allegedly violating a restraining order obtained by her then-husband.

According to a second amended complaint, the holding cell at Santa Rita in which Turano was placed had dried, bloody hand prints on the wall and feces and mucous smeared over the walls and a bench. “Medical pads” with human hair on them were also stuck to the wall.

A second holding cell was filled with garbage, rotting food and used toilet paper piled next to the toilet, Turano says, and had “stains of dried fluids on the walls and benches,” the identity of which “was not ascertainable.”

Turano also claims her multiple requests for a menstrual pad were ignored, causing her to bleed through her pants and onto a concrete bench. When she was released the next morning, she says she was forced to take public transportation “dressed in wet, visibly blood-stained clothing.”

On Thursday, Turano’s attorney Yolanda Huang insisted the possibility that Turano will again be arrested and subjected to filthy conditions at Santa Rita isn’t speculative. Westmore last June dismissed the Oakland defendants from the suit on the grounds that responding officers are required to make an arrest when there is a complaint of a violation of a domestic violence restraining order, even if the officers didn’t witness the alleged violation. Therefore, Huang said Thursday, Turano is subject to future arrest based on her ex-husband’s potentially “baseless” allegations.

Huang said there was no probable cause for Turano’s 2016 arrest and noted Turano wasn’t charged with a crime. In the complaint, Huang characterizes the allegations by Turano’s ex-husband as “bald and perhaps baseless,” leveled by a “disgruntled ex-spouse during the course of a divorce proceeding.”

“There’s a Damocles sword over her head – the police have to obey the order,” Huang told Westmore. “If there’s a dispute between her and her husband – picking up her daughter, [child] custody – then she’s back” where she was. “The same situation exists now [at Santa Rita Jail] as back at her arrest. So it’s not hypothetical.”

Without going into detail, Huang said Turano’s divorce had been “exceedingly contentious,” forcing her to change jobs twice due to “harassment.”

“That’s the reason she believes she is subject to being reincarcerated under very similar conditions,” Huang explained.

But on Friday, Westmore denied Turano’s request for an injunction, finding she lacked standing to bring the claim because her belief she’ll end up back in Santa Rita is purely speculative.

Burke, Williams & Sorensen attorney Temitayo Peters, who represents the Alameda County defendants, countered Turano makes no allegations in her newest complaint that current conditions at Santa Rita match those Turano alleges were present in December 2016. Westmore did not address this argument.

Outside court, Peters declined to comment on current conditions at Santa Rita. Huang said she hasn’t monitored conditions there in the last six months – doing so requires interviewing people recently incarcerated there. But she said the jail is notorious for failing to enforce court-ordered policy changes.

Before the close of arguments, Westmore indicated she will advance Turano’s negligence claim against Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern and four other sheriffs’ employees because they aren’t entitled to statutory immunity. Negligence claims against the county and the sheriff’s office will be dismissed.

Turano’s equal protection and cruel and unusual punishment claims weren’t challenged Thursday and will also proceed. Peters, however, said the defendants may file a motion for reconsideration of Westmore’s June 2018 equal protection ruling based on a recent decision from the Ninth Circuit.

%d bloggers like this: