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Los Angeles County Settles Overdetention Suits for $27 Million

by John E. Dannenberg

In the largest legal settlement in its history, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed in May, 2002 to pay $27 million to compensate 400,000 former jail prisoners who had been held on wrong warrants, held beyond their release dates or who had been inappropriately strip-searched. Sixty-two named plaintiffs will receive between $2,000 and $30,000 each; other class members will receive from $50 to $5,000, as calculated using a stipulated "point" system. In addition, remedial policy changes were agreed to.

Settling a multiplicity of state and federal lawsuits (but not all of them), the County recognized a long standing problem that it had until now declined to correct - in the belief that it was winning its vigorous fight against these lawsuits. It is estimated that the County overspent $1.7 million per year keeping these overdue prisoners illegally incarcerated. With claims dating back to 1995, the cumulative waste of taxpayer dollars was nearly $12 million - before considering either the $27 million damages settlement or the County's estimated own $1.15 million in legal fees.

LA County jail processes approximately 200,000 prisoners per year, 40% of whom were estimated to have been kept beyond their release dates after a court had ordered them freed. Typically, when prisoners were ordered freed from the courthouse, they were instead returned to jail _ enduring multiple strip searches _ to await their court paperwork's arrival and a warrants/detainers check. It was these overdetentions and searches that were at the heart of the damages settlement. The LA County Sheriff laid the blame to the lack of interconnection between the jail and court computers, a problem that won't be remedied until 2003.

Of the $27 million, $5.5 million will go to the plaintiffs' numerous attorneys, payable September 1, 2002. The remaining $21.5 million is designated as the Class Fund, from which approximately $2-3 million will be reserved for a Cy Pres (charitable) fund to be used exclusively for jail prisoner programs and for community organizations that benefit people at risk of incarceration. The Class Fund will be funded with $500,000 in August, 2001, $9 million on September 1, 2001, $9 million on September 1, 2002 and $3 million on September 1, 2003. The 26 named plaintiffs will split approximately $750,000 in damages. Excluded from the settlement are those prisoners who had signed a non-suit waiver. The Sheriff's department, when it knew it had wrongfully overdetained someone, often offered a small sum of money in exchange for such a waiver.

New policies agreed to in the settlement include setting prisoners free at the courthouse - with bus money home, if needed. If a return to jail is required, it will be without strip searches, and such prisoners shall be released within 8 hours of the time deputies run their release data on the computer system. If a prisoner's sentence expires, he must be released by midnight of the final day of the sentence.

LA County fought both the policy changes and the liabilities for years. Their attorney estimated the claims could have resulted in a jury verdict of $100 million if the case had gone to trial. LA County essentially ignored a December, 1998 US District Court ruling holding that the Sheriff's policy of strip-searching all prisoners returning from court was unconstitutional because it did not differentiate between actual prisoners and those who had been ordered freed by a judge, but were still being detained. (Tchakmakjian v. Block, CV-98-9683 MRP, CD Cal.) A major shift in attitude came when the 9th Circuit US Court of Appeals ruled that the County could be held liable for the Sheriff's policies. See: Streit v. County of Los Angeles, 236 F.3d 552 (9th Cir. 2001) [PLN, February 2002].

The system devised to prorate the Class Fund to class members awards "points" in a manner so as to share the Fund proportionate to each member's injury, as a fraction of all claims, in accordance with the following schedule: 1 point (1 day overdetention); 2 points (2-3 days overdetention); 3 points (4-5 days overdetention); 4 points (6-7 days overdetention); 5 points (over one week overdetention); plus, 3 points (first visual body cavity search); 2 points (each subsequent body cavity search); 2 points (member of Wrong Warrant class).

Potential class members may obtain more information via the toll-free number 1-866-461-1840 or on the Internet at See: Williams, et al. v. County of Los Angeles, et al., No. CV-97-03826 WJR (USDC, CD Cal.), Stipulated Order, May 9, 2002.

Additional Sources: Los Angeles Daily News, Metropolitan News-Enterprise, Los Angeles Times

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Related legal case

Williams v. County of Los Angeles