Savage Beating in the Drunk Tank Leaves Officers Liable

     PASADENA, Calif. (CN) – Sheriff’s officers who did not break up a savage beating in a Los Angeles holding cell must pay damages, the 9th Circuit ruled Friday.
     Police arrested Jonathan Castro in October 2009 for being drunk in public and threw him in a cell at the West Hollywood station.
     The ruling notes that shortly after officers brought Jonathan Gonzalez, arrested for punching out a window at a nightclub, to the same cell, Castro began pounding on the cell door’s window for a full minute.
     Though officers were in earshot, no one responded.
     A community volunteer at the jail came by approximately 20 minutes later and noted that Castro appeared to be asleep and that Gonzalez was “inappropriately” touching Castro’s thigh.
     Since such touching violates jail policy, the volunteer made a report to his supervising officer, Christopher Solomon.
     Six minutes later, Solomon heard loud sounds and went to investigate.
     He found Gonzalez stomping on Castro’s head, the latter was “unconscious in a pool of blood.”
     Castro suffered a broken jaw and a traumatic brain injury. He was hospitalized for a month after the attack and then spent four years in a long-term care facility. He continues to suffer from severe memory loss and permanent cognitive impairments, and his family is now responsible for his basic care.
     Castro sued Solomon, his supervising sergeant David Valentine, Los Angeles County and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
     A federal jury ultimately awarded Castro $2.6 million in damages, and the parties later stipulated to $840,000 in attorney fees, $12,000 in punitive damages against Valentine and $6,000 in punitive damages against Solomon.
     The 9th Circuit reversed the verdict against the county but otherwise affirmed Friday.
     In clearing the county, the court said because Castro “failed to establish that the county had an informal policy in relation to the sobering cell that caused him harm.”
     No evidence was presented to indicate that, in its design of the West Hollywood Station, the county had the requisite “consciousness of risk” to be held deliberately indifferent.
     Solomon and Valentine are not entitled to qualified immunity, however, since Castro presented “several different ways in which Solomon and Valentine were deliberately indifferent to his risk of harm.”
     “Pursuant to jail policy, combative inmates such as Gonzalez were to be housed separately from inmates like Castro, specifically to avoid this type of altercation,” the 38-page opinion states.
     Though the jail in question had separate cells available, they were left unused on the evening of the attack, the court found.
     “This evidence was sufficient to allow the jury to find that Valentine knew of but disregarded a substantial risk of serious harm to Castro, and we find no reason to disturb that finding,” Judge Ronald Gilman wrote for a three-person panel.
     Judge Consuelo Callahan wrote separately to elaborate on Castro’s failure to show that the design of the West Hollywood Station “constitutes a policy for the purposes of liability.”
     “Here, the record contains no evidence to suggest that the design and construction of the West Hollywood Station implicated a relevant policy choice,” she said.
     “Although both the county and Castro presented evidence of measures that could be taken to increase supervision in the sobering cell, no evidence was presented that the county specifically considered these measures or made a deliberate choice to reject them at the time of the facilities’ construction, or even at any time thereafter.”
     Judge Susan Graber wrote in a partial dissent that the court should have affirmed against the city based on sufficient evidence of deliberate indifference.
     The regulation requiring sobering cells to be equipped with an audio-monitoring system – an “affirmative adoption of a regulation aimed at mitigating the risk to individuals housed in sobering cells” – provides evidence that the county had sufficient knowledge of the potential risk to inmates, Graber said.

%d bloggers like this: