Washington County Not Liable for Shooting

     (CN) — Families of the victims of a shooting spree cannot collect damages from one county where the shooter was jailed before the rampage, the Washington Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision.
     Isaac Zamora spent most of the spring of 2008 in the Skagit County Jail and eventually pleaded guilty to malicious mischief and possession of a controlled substance, court records show.
     He was then transferred to Okanogan County Jail, where he was incarcerated until his release on Aug. 2 of that year.
     Exactly one month later, Zamora had a psychotic episode and went on a shooting rampage in Skagit County.
     After entering a neighbor’s house and demanding to know what the neighbor was doing there, Zamora killed Deputy Anne Jackson, who had responded to a 911 call.
     In his ensuing rampage, Zamora killed five neighbors and injured four others.
     His victims and their families sued both counties where Zamora was jailed, as well as the state corrections department. Some claims were settled or dismissed until only Skagit County remained as a defendant.
     The plaintiffs claimed that Skagit County jail personnel failed to evaluate and treat Zamora’s illness fully.
     The trial court ruled in the county’s favor, stating that its duty ended when Zamora left its custody. The court added that the plaintiffs did not prove that the jail’s negligence was the proximate cause of Zamora’s crimes.
     The Washington Court of Appeals reversed the decision last year, finding that issues of fact remained on those two points.
     The case proceeded to the Washington Supreme Court, which ruled in Skagit County’s favor Thursday in a decision written by Justice Susan Owens.
     “The crimes in this case occurred well after the inmate left that jail, long after the county had the duty (or ability) to supervise the former inmate,” Owens noted.
     The judge added, “A jail’s duty to supervise and control inmates during incarceration does not include a general duty to somehow prevent inmates from committing crimes after they are lawfully released from incarceration.”
     Owens explained that such liability can stem from a “take charge” relationship, like the relationship between a parole officer and a parolee, but the plaintiffs sought to expand that duty too broadly, she said.
     “By some estimates, the recidivism rate is well over 50 percent,” Owens noted. “Thus, one could argue that in almost any case, it is foreseeable that an inmate may commit another crime after release.”
     Justice Mary I. Yu wrote a dissenting opinion.
     “The majority limits the scope of this duty to maintaining physical control over the detainee or inmate during periods of lawful confinement, categorically excluding any other types of reasonable precautions a county might take,” Yu wrote.
     Yu noted that Zamora’s mother “begged” a Skagit County corrections officer to keep her son in jail and get him mental-health treatment.
     In addition, Yu stated that the majority opinion treated the relationship between a jail and its inmates similarly to that “between a warehouse and its inventory.”
     “This is unacceptable as applied to anyone,” she wrote, “but is particularly disconcerting as applied to a presumptively innocent pretrial detainee who is known to be suffering from mental illness, as Zamora was for most of the time he was in Skagit County Jail. I therefore cannot join the majority.”
     Phil Talmadge, a former Washington Supreme Court justice who represented the families, told the Associated Press that the ruling was “really distressing” and “extraordinarily damaging.”
     “If you have an inmate who is manifestly experiencing mental-health problems, you now have a free pass to be oblivious to that person’s mental-health distress and the likely consequences of that person’s release,” Talmadge said.
     Skagit County Jail officials did not respond Monday to an email request for comment.

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