PLAINTIFF ENTITLED TO NEW TRIAL WHERE SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE SHOWS JAIL OFFICIALS NOT ENTITLED TO DEFERENCE BY JURY ON CONDITIONS OF CONFINEMENT AND EXCESSIVE SEARCH CLAIMS

Courtesy of James R. Touchstone, Esq.

In a case entitled Shorter v. Baca, (9th Cir. 2018) 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 19491, the Ninth Circuit recently determined that jail officials were not entitled to deference by a jury on their decisions concerning conditions of confinement and excessive search claims.  The Court remanded the matter for a new trial.

Background

Lecia Shorter was a pretrial detainee at Los Angeles County’s (“County”) Century Regional Detention Facility (“CRDF”), an all-women’s jail, between November 15 to December 17, 2011.  When she arrived at the jail, a social worker diagnosed her as suffering from a mood disorder and placed Shorter in the jail’s high-observation housing (“HOH”) unit for mentally ill women.

HOH inmates had more restrictions than the general inmate population, and were monitored by staff every 15 minutes to prevent suicide and other harmful behaviors. HOH inmates were handcuffed whenever outside of their cells, except when taking showers.  The Department of Justice (“DOJ”) determined in its later investigation of County jail treatment of mentally ill inmates that the excessive use of shackles on female HOH inmates was counterproductive to women’s physical and mental health, and led to violations of the detainees’ constitutional rights.

After her release, Shorter filed a 42 U.S.C. section 1983 action, challenging several conditions of confinement, inter alia.  After the District Court denied County’s summary judgment motions on all the confinement condition claims, the case proceeded to a jury trial before a magistrate judge.

At trial, Shorter presented evidence that the County, tasked with supervising high-observation housing for mentally ill women, had a policy of shackling the women in HOH to steel tables in the middle of an indoor recreation room as their sole form of recreation.  Shorter also presented evidence that jail officials conducting visual body cavity searches routinely left noncompliant detainees naked and chained to their cell doors, for hours at a time without access to food, water, or a toilet.  Furthermore, Shorter presented the jail’s daily logs during her pretrial detention, which revealed that Shorter was deprived of meals, showers, and recreation partly because of overcrowding and understaffing at CRDF.

The magistrate judge, relying on jury instructions provided by the Ninth Circuit, instructed the jury to “give deference to jail officials” in deciding whether Shorter’s conditions of confinement and excessive search claims were viable.  The jury returned a verdict in favor of all defendants. Shorter then moved for a new trial, but the magistrate judge denied her motion.  Shorter appealed, challenging the instructions given to the jury on her claims.

Discussion

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared the main dispute on appeal to be the propriety of the jury instruction, which stated: “In determining whether the defendant(s) violated the plaintiff’s rights as alleged, you should give deference to jail officials in the adoption and execution of policies and practices that in their judgment are needed to preserve discipline and to maintain internal security.”

The Court noted all parties were aware that the appropriateness of the jury instruction turned on whether the jail’s recreation and extended search policies were necessary to preserve discipline and maintain internal security. While officials “should be accorded wide-ranging deference in the adoption and execution of policies and practices that in their judgment [were] needed to preserve internal order and discipline and to maintain institutional security,”[1] the Ninth Circuit stated that courts had long recognized that deference must be set aside where the plaintiff produced “substantial evidence showing that the jail’s policy or practice [was] an unnecessary, unjustified, or exaggerated response to the need for prison security.”[2]

The Court found that Shorter provided substantial evidence showing that the jail’s practice of chaining female inmates to a table in the middle of an indoor recreation room and depriving inmates of food and sanitation was an “unnecessary and unjustified response to the problem of jail security.”  For example, Shorter presented a 2014 letter from both the Chief of the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ and the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California to the County Counsel that condemned the County’s practice of chaining detainees for recreation, concluding that “[t]his approach to prisoner management may be a reflection of the low level of security staffing…rather than a necessary safety-structural requirement for delivering appropriate assessment and treatment services” for the women inmates. The DOJ letter also encouraged the jail officials to determine the appropriate level of restraint on “an individualized basis in accordance with the prisoners’ specific mental health and safety needs.”  Testimony from a jail deputy also suggested understaffing as the motivation driving the practice of applying safety restraints to inmates at all times outside of their cells, including during recreation time.

The Court found the County offered no specific reason for its shackling recreation policy or its practice of curtailing meals and showers when the facility was understaffed. The County never explained why it could not make the shackling determination on an individualized basis, as per the DOJ letter, or why it believed that such restrictions were necessary at all times to keep inmates and officers safe.  Nor did the County offer any valid security-based policy as to why such treatment was necessary. The Court observed that all inmates were entitled to food, clothing, sanitation, medical care, and personal safety.  Moreover, the Ninth Circuit expressed that it had repeatedly confirmed that the jail officials were constitutionally-bound to provide outdoor recreation opportunities, or otherwise meaningful recreation, to inmates.  These conditions of confinement were required regardless of issues of staffing, cost, inconvenience or logistical difficulties.

The Court explained that the deference instruction could only be given when there was evidence that the treatment to which Shorter objected was provided pursuant to a security-based policy.  Finding that the only justification that the County offered at trial for severely restricting Shorter’s conditions of confinement was a concern about overcrowding and understaffing, the Court concluded that the magistrate judge should not have instructed the jury to defer to the jail officials on the claim.

The Court then turned to examining whether the deference instruction was proper for Shorter’s excessive search claim.  The Court explained that if plaintiffs demonstrate that they have been subjected to search procedures that are an unnecessary, unjustified, or an exaggerated response to concerns about jail safety, deference to jail officials is unwarranted.

Shorter challenged the jail’s visual body cavity search policy, which all inmates were subjected to upon return from trips to court, and the jail’s practice of leaving noncompliant detainees shackled to their cell doors. The County’s official policy stated that inmates shall not be required to “remain in any search position for more time than is reasonable and necessary to complete the search,” but at the time that Shorter was detained, officials routinely left noncompliant female inmates chained to their cell doors for hours, mostly naked, and with no access to meals, water, or a toilet. Left that way, female inmates were visible to both the male and female guards on patrol.

Shorter testified at trial that, on three occasions, deputies left her chained to her cell door for three to six hours, without access to food, water, or clothing.  On one occasion, the deputies did not leave enough slack on Shorter’s chain to allow her to reach the bathroom in her cell.

The Court found the search procedures here were a humiliating and extreme invasion of Shorter’s privacy that must be justified by legitimate penological purposes, but jail officials admitted that their practice of keeping noncompliant detainees chained to their cell doors wearing only partial underwear did not serve any legitimate penological purpose. The Ninth Circuit further found that the fact that the Los Angeles County jails stopped using the search procedure supported the Court’s view that the search procedure was an exaggerated and unwarranted response to prison security, noting that the jail even at the time of Shorter’s detainment had identified a less intrusive alternative method of searching inmates for possible contraband that was not used.  Finally, case precedent showed that determinations about whether to defer to jail officials were often fact- and context-dependent, and not a ready acquiescence to jail official authority.

The Court thus concluded that substantial evidence supported Shorter’s argument that this search practice was an unnecessary, unjustified, and exaggerated response to jail officials’ need for prison security. The magistrate judge erred in instructing the jury to give deference to the jail officials on this claim.

The Court also determined that the instruction to defer was not harmless because it was not more probable than not that the jury would have reached the same verdict had it not been so instructed. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit granted Shorter’s demand for a new trial.

HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY

The Court determined that pretrial detainee Shorter was subjected to a shackling policy and other conditions that the Court found unjustifiable from a jail security perspective.  The Court determined that deference to the jail officials’ decisions was not justified if made due to budget, staffing, inconvenience, logistical, or any other general reason.  Accordingly, agencies must be prepared to demonstrate that a particular confinement policy is justified due to institutional security concerns.  Absent this justification, this opinion provides that triers of fact may substitute their own judgment concerning whether a certain condition of confinement is constitutional, without deference to jail policies or practices.

As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446–1400 or via email at jrt@jones-mayer.com.

Information on www.jones-mayer.com is for general use and is not legal advice. The mailing of this Client Alert Memorandum is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client-relationship.

[1] Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979).

[2] Florence v. Bd. of Chosen Freeholders, 566 U.S. 318 (2012).





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