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Class-Action Suit Filed for Inmates Held Past Release Date

Court: Attorneys allege that the county falsely imprisons thousands annually. The Sheriff's Department is trying to overhaul its tracking system.

April 25, 1997|TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For days, April Marie Courie said, she pleaded with the guards at the Sybil Brand Institute to free her from custody. She had served her five-day sentence for driving with a suspended license and needed to get back to work.

Finally, after Courie had spent 10 days in jail, a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy working the graveyard shift agreed to help her. He did some research, she said, and found that her booking number had been confused with that of another inmate. Courie was sent back to court and ordered released, which took two more days because of the county's archaic paperwork system.

Now she wants her due.

Courie--who says she lost both her jobs because of the ordeal--joined four other plaintiffs in a class-action Superior Court lawsuit filed this week against Los Angeles County, Sheriff Sherman Block and other officials.

"Being in there was a nightmare," said Courie, who had been working at a Chevrolet dealership during the day and as a waitress at night before she went to jail. "I didn't sleep. I wasn't allowed to take a shower. The food was inedible. . . . It was terrible."

Alleging that the county falsely imprisons thousands of inmates annually by holding them beyond their scheduled release dates, four civil rights attorneys have joined to apply for the class-action status. They hope to represent all county inmates who have been released by a court but held in custody during the past year.

"We intend to seek an injunction under the taxpayer action and force Sheriff Block to stop this wasteful and illegal practice," lead attorney John C. Burton said.

Added attorney Timothy Midgley: "The attitude is one of, 'We don't care.' "

Sheriff's officials declined to comment on the matter because of the pending litigation. However, they have said they are troubled by the paperwork problems and are trying to overhaul the county's inmate tracking system. (According to the Sheriff's Department's figures, 200 people have been held two days too long thus far this year.)

Also, the department has started handing out checks to departing inmates held beyond their scheduled release dates in exchange for their agreement not to pursue legal action.

So far this year, about $26,000 has been paid to 30 people who were held an average of 17 days beyond their court-ordered release dates, according to figures provided to The Times under the California Public Records Act. These former inmates have received between $150 and $8,000.

Although sheriff's officials try to free inmates within 24 hours of receiving their release orders, the civil rights attorneys argue that vindicated inmates should be freed immediately.

At the very least, they say, inmates who have been acquitted, arrested by mistake or had their cases dropped should be separated from the rest of the jail population. And the paperwork processing should take only one to three hours, they said.

Burton said the lawyers now hope to begin identifying members of the class through the discovery process. Then, under auspices of the court, potential members will be contacted and informed of the pending lawsuit, Burton said.

This is the second over-detainment class-action lawsuit filed in recent weeks. The other was filed in mid-March in federal court by attorney Stephen Yagman, who would also contact and inform potential class members of that pending lawsuit, according to normal federal court practices.

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