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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Verdict on Savage Jailhouse Beating Fought En Banc

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Attorneys for a man left permanently brain damaged after a brutal night in the drunk tank urged the en banc Ninth Circuit on Tuesday to uphold the $2.6 million verdict against West Hollywood jail officers.

Judge Milan Smith seemed skeptical when the attorney for Los Angeles County and the officers told the court to consider the officers' conduct in specific context.

"There's no question is there that people who are incarcerated are entitled to be free from violence at the time they're inmates," Judge Milan Smith said.

"That is true," said Melinda Cantrall of Hurrell & Cantrall, "but framing it in that manner is much too general."

"You need to have notice to the officers that they're particular conduct is violating a clearly established right," Cantrall added. "In deliberate indifference cases, the law is unclear."

Los Angeles wants the court to overturn a federal jury's award of $2.6 million in damages to Jonathan Castro who now suffers permanent cognitive impairments after his arrest in October 2009 for public drunkenness.

Castro was sitting in a cell at the West Hollywood station when officers brought in Jonathan Gonzalez, having just arrested him for punching out a window at a nightclub.

Though Castro began pounding on the cell door's window for a full minute after Gonzalez joined his cell - and there were officers in earshot - no one responded, court records show.

Approximately 20 minutes later, a community volunteer at the jail came by 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 his cellmate's head, with Castro "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. In addition to permanent cognitive impairments, Castro continues to suffer from severe memory loss and his family is now responsible for his basic care.

After the jury handed down its verdict, the parties stipulated to $840,000 in attorneys' fees, $12,000 in punitive damages against the jail's supervising sergeant David Valentine, and $6,000 in punitive damages against Solomon.

Though a three-judge panel of Ninth Circuit reversed the verdict against the county in May 2015, the court affirmed that Solomon and Valentine were deliberately indifferent to Castro's risk of harm.

The Ninth Circuit vacated that holding in favor of Tuesday's rehearing before the full,

11-judge court.

Castro's attorney argued that his client's jailers ignored county policy of not housing combative drunks with others, and threw Castro in a cell that looked like a "dungeon" without adequate supervision.

"When these inebriates, and these are extremely intoxicated people, are put in a cell, there ought to be maximum visual and audio monitoring," Pasadena-based attorney John Burton told the court. "The evidence at trial was absolutely clear there is no speaker or intercom there is no way for a prisoner put in a sobering cell to summon a jailer for assistance other than pounding on a window."

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