L.A. County Settles Inmate Suit against Sheriff and His Department for $722,000

Monday, December 02, 2013
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca

After a federal jury held Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca personally responsible (to the tune of $100,000) in October for a jailhouse beating allegedly administered by deputies, Baca-watchers have been waiting for another expensive shoe to drop.

The Tyler Willis lawsuit that accused the sheriff of being personally liable (which is unusual) was made possible by a July 2011 decision (pdf) from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concerning another inmate, Dion Starr. Starr, who is black, said he was stabbed 23 times by Latino gang members and claimed the sheriff was responsible for procedures and security deficiencies that led to his assault.

The appellate court agreed and last week the county Board of Supervisors approved a $722,000 settlement of a civil lawsuit that claimed the sheriff’s “deliberate indifference” to the jail’s unsafe condition. Starr was an inmate at the jail awaiting trial in 2006 when a group of inmates gathered outside his cell and threatened to harm him, according to the court record. He yelled to deputies for help, but instead, they unlocked his cell and allowed the attackers in.

Starr was stabbed 23 times and while he lay bleeding, after the attackers had left, deputies came in, yelled at him “nigger lay down” and “shut up nigger” while repeatedly kicking him in the face and body. Other deputes watched. Afterward, a deputy interfered with him receiving medical attention.

Starr’s lawsuit, citing repeated federal investigations since 1996 and a 2005 report on racial violence in county jails by special counsel Merrick Bobb, argued that Baca knew things were out of control in the jail and was therefore responsible. A U.S. District Court judge threw the case out in 2008, citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision that top officials can’t be held responsible for the behavior of subordinates.

But a three-member panel of appellate judges reinstated the case and decided 2-1 in Starr’s favor, ruling the high-court decision was trumped by the constitutional issues the plaintiff raised. They said Starr was alleging unconstitutional confinement in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment “as incorporated through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” not purposeful discrimination.

An appeal that the entire 11-member court hear that case was denied. But Baca’s lawyers said they will pursue further appeals and it remains unclear if county taxpayers will be picking up his tab.

Baca received the “Sheriff of the Year” award in February from the National Sheriffs’ Association.

–Ken Broder


County Approves $722,000 Settlement in Jail Inmate Lawsuit (by Rina Palta, KPCC)

L.A. County Approves $722,000 Settlement in Jail Suit Naming Baca (by Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times)

Federal Jury Finds L.A. County Sheriff Personally Liable for Inmate Abuse (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca Can be Sued for Jail Violence, Court Rules (by Carol J. Williams and Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times)

Dion Starr v. Leroy Baca (U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals) (pdf)

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