The Ventura County Sheriff's Department has reached a tentative settlement in a federal class-action lawsuit that contends deputies and local police violated the legal rights of dozens of inmates by keeping them in jail too long without filing criminal charges.
Lawyers for the Sheriff's Department declined to say how much money 80 former inmates will receive in the settlement, which was reached last week and is expected to be presented to the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 10.
But the plaintiffs' lawyer, John Burton of Pasadena, said the value of the settlement is about $250,000, including $52,500 in legal fees. The amount per inmate ranges from about $100 to $5,000, with the inmates who were not convicted of a crime collecting the bulk of the money.
"The problem was, [authorities] were doing an end-run around the law that says we have a right to get in front of a judge in a certain length of time," Burton said. "And that's a very important right."
State law requires that suspects be arraigned on criminal charges or released within 48 hours of arrest.
But for years, officers in Ventura County routinely rearrested suspects as they were technically released, but still in custody. That gave prosecutors more time to gather evidence to support charges.
It also placed many suspects who were never convicted of the crimes for which they were arrested behind bars for extra days.
"Thirty people who would otherwise have been free spent 110 days behind bars because of this policy," Burton said. They will receive $1,250 for each extra day. "For another group, it was much more of a technical violation, because they were ultimately sentenced on their crimes and received credit for time served." Most of those will receive $100 for each extra day.
In-custody arrests affected far more inmates than the 80 involved in the federal lawsuit, because the sheriff's top jailer said the practice went on for at least three decades. The plaintiffs were those affected in the year before Burton filed a legal claim in February 2001. The others were excluded by a statute of limitations.
Burton said he knows of no other California county that has used in-custody arrests to exceed the two-day custody limit, because the practice violates suspects' constitutional rights against unreasonable seizures and denies them liberty without due process of law. County officials had maintained that other counties did the same thing, but county lawyer Philip Erickson said he was unable to confirm that.
"The real ironic thing about it," Erickson said, "is that all of the various local agencies were aware of the practice, including the court system, the public defender and the district attorney's office."
The tentative settlement marks the second time that Ventura County has resolved a lawsuit involving improper in-custody arrests.
Earlier this year, the Sheriff's Department paid $125,000 to Westlake Village businessman Lee R. Mannheimer, who was jailed for several days on suspicion of attempting to kill his ex-wife in 1999--but never charged with the crime.
The Ventura County Jail, which is run by the Sheriff's Department, stopped allowing the rearrest of uncharged inmates in December 2000, several months after Mannheimer sued, and following a legal challenge by Public Defender Kenneth Clayman, who declared at the time: "We can't hold people in custody for undue lengths of time like they do in South Africa."
By early 2001, Sheriff Bob Brooks said he was convinced the practice was wrong and that he had banned it.
Both the class-action lawsuit and the public defender's petition were filed on behalf of Jorge Robert Juarez, who was arrested on suspicion of burglary and rearrested 47 hours later. Juarez spent 105 hours in jail without ever going before a judge. He eventually was convicted of burglary. He will split $10,000 from the settlement with the other named plaintiff in the suit, Felipe Dominguez.
Dominguez was arrested on suspicion of threatening public employees, but prosecutors filed no charges when he was taken to court. He was then rearrested for a probation violation and convicted.
Although county prosectors worried that the change in policy might free criminals who would then flee prosecution, Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Patricia Murphy said she knows of no case in which that has happened.