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Beating of Jail Inmate Could Bolster Other Brutality Suits

Courts: Orange County officials worry that a settlement may help plaintiffs suing the county to establish a pattern of abuse by deputies.


A little-publicized beating case that led to the first criminal convictions in memory for brutality at the Orange County jail threatens to come back to haunt the county--and possibly taxpayers as well.

The case involves an inmate who was repeatedly kicked and punched by jail officials. Unlike the flurry of beating allegations to hit the Orange County Sheriff's Department in recent years, investigators quickly determined that Leonard Mendez's allegations had merit.

Now, civil rights attorneys representing other inmates in brutality suits are using what happened to Mendez to bolster their own cases by alleging a pattern of abuse by jail deputies.

Mendez's beating is considered significant because the Sheriff's Department concluded the jail staff acted improperly. If attorneys can prove that beatings are not rare, isolated occurrences but a "pattern or practice," the amount of civil damages an inmate could receive from the county would rise dramatically.

The Mendez case was closed more than a year ago when the county paid the former inmate $95,000 to settle a civil lawsuit. It has received no public airing until now. But a review by The Times of investigative reports and court documents provides a window into the growing dispute over the treatment of inmates and the way officials handle allegations of abuse.

Sheriff's officials deny the Mendez beating is anything but an aberration, insisting that their swift response to the beating underscores how the department won't tolerate abuse of inmates.

"I can point to this as an example of how the Sheriff's Department reacts to allegations of wrongdoing by a staff member," said Assistant Sheriff Rocky Hewitt, in a written statement. "We will react swiftly and harshly to any behavior in violation of our policies and procedures."

But to others, the case offers evidence of a rough form of justice used by deputies against inmates they label as possible problems.

It "shows that excessive force is . . . used to control and intimidate the inmate population," said Newport Beach attorney Jonathan Slipp, who is representing 12 other Orange County jail inmates who say they received beatings.

The controversy comes as the county faces lawsuits filed by more than 20 inmates and as the FBI probes two alleged beatings at the Orange County Jail.

Legal experts said finding a "pattern or practice" of police abuse is rare but not unheard of. A federal judge, for example, ruled a year ago that Ventura County Sheriff's deputies used a special restraining chair in a "pattern or practice" of abuse against jail inmates.

"We have to show that they were indifferent to the rights of the inmates," said R. Samuel Paz, the plaintiff's attorney in the Ventura case who is now suing Orange County. "We [must] prove that there was a pattern of excessive force and a failure to investigate them."

In the Mendez case, sheriff's investigators suspected almost from the beginning that the allegations held merit, according to court records and reports prepared by detectives.

Mendez, a 29-year-old laborer, was booked into the county's Intake Release Center in Santa Ana on Jan. 24, 1997. Mendez was booked for failing to pay an earlier fine on a minor drug charge.

As he entered the jail's clothing room, Mendez saw two civilian jail workers--known as correctional service technicians--standing behind a plexiglass screen taking in personal property from other inmates.

The technicians, Domingo Castro and Arnulfo Quintans, took Mendez's clothes, including a Mighty Ducks jacket that they placed aside from the rest of his property, according to the investigative report.

Worried that his jacket would be stolen, Mendez raised his voice, asking them to place it in a sealed plastic bag. Until they did, he told them he would not sign a property form.

According to records, Castro grabbed Mendez's hand and pulled it through a hole in the plexiglass. Quintans allegedly grabbed the other. As nearly a dozen inmates looked on, Castro then punched Mendez twice in the stomach, according to investigative reports.

The technicians called for help, and eventually let Mendez go when a group of deputies arrived. One ordered Mendez to sit on a bench. The deputies left. Another soon returned and ordered the inmates--all but Mendez--to leave the clothing room, according to the report.

Mendez later told investigators that after about 10 minutes four or five deputies entered the room and confronted him.

Mendez said he was punched and kicked repeatedly. He said he was struck on the back, in the side and on his neck until the deputies eventually stopped and left.

Five minutes later, another deputy entered the clothing room. The deputy told investigators he saw a huge scrape along Mendez's face, as if the inmate had hit his head or been struck. About five minutes later, two other deputies took Mendez to a holding cell.

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