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Ninth Circuit Upholds Preliminary Injunction Against Webcams In Arizona Jail

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a preliminary injunction prohibiting an Arizona sheriff from displaying live video of prisoners in the Maricopa County Jail on the internet.

This case arises from Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's latest publicity stunt. Already known for humiliating prisoners by dressing them in pink underwear, warehousing them in tent cities," and forcing them to toil in chain gangs, Arpaio has chosen to take his contempt for the rights of prisoners and pretrial detainees one step furtherbroadcasting their every move on the internet for all the world to see.

At the County's Madison Street Jail, Arpaio installed four webcams that captured a men's holding cell, two intake areas, and a portion of the women's holding cell--including the toilet (this webcam was repositioned to a hallway after the lawsuit was filed). The video was originally streamed to the County Sheriff's server, but later moved to because of the heavy traffic. Visitors to the website could view live video from each of the webcams.

In response to Arpaio's sadistic intrusion on their privacy, 24 pretrial detainees challenged the webcam policy in state court. The Sheriff and the County, perhaps seeking a more favorable venue, removed the case to federal district court. However, the Sheriff's voyeuristic proclivities found no particular favor there, either. Relying on Bell v. Wolfish, 99 S.Ct. 1861 (1979), the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona held that the policy unconstitutionally punished the jail's pretrial detainees and issued a preliminary injunction. The defendants appealed.

A panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed, with one judge dissenting. The Court initially noted that the case was not moot. The Court then addressed Arpaio's challenge to the preliminary injunction, which it contended was reducible to two arguments: the district court misidentified the applicable law and the district court misapplied the law to the facts of this case.

Examining the first issue, the Court held that Bell--rather than the four-factor reasonable relation" test delineated in Turner v. Safely, 107 S.Ct. 2254 (1987)--was the correct legal standard. Turner was inapplicable, the Court held, because Turner dealt with convicted prisoners, not pretrial detainees." (Notably, in another challenge by pretrial detainees against the same sheriff, the Ninth Circuit held that Turner was the correct standard. See: Mauro v. Arpaio, 188 F.3d 1054 (9th Cir. 1999) (en banc). The court further concluded that webcams were plainly an excessive response to Sheriff Arpaio's interest in maintaining jail security.
The Ninth Circuit also agreed with the district court's application of Bell. In Bell the Supreme Court held that the Due Process Clause prohibits punishing a pretrial detainee before an adjudication of guilt. The Bell court further held that for a governmental action to constitute punishment, the action must cause a detainee to suffer some harm or disability," and must be intended as punishment.

In the instant case, the court held that the plaintiffs were definitely harmed by the policy, which subjected every moment of their daily activities to global scrutiny. Exposure to millions of complete strangers, not to mention friends, loved ones, co-workers and employers, as one is booked, fingerprinted, and generally processed as an arrestee," the court opined, constitutes a level of humiliation that almost anyone would regard as profoundly undesirable and strive to avoid.

Continuing, the Court held that the webcams were imposed for the purpose of punishment. Arpaio had claimed that the policy served as a public deterrent to crime. The Court held, however, that retribution and deterrence are not legitimate non-punitive governmental objectives' that can justify adverse conditions of detention for pretrial detainees." As to Arpaio's contention that the County's interest in keeping its pretrial detention centers open to public scrutiny justified the policy, the Court countered that turning pretrial detainees into the unwilling objects of the latest reality show" to be broadcast around the world was not rationally connected to goals associated with educating the citizenry of Maricopa County.

Finally, the Court rejected Arpaio's absurd contention that the preliminary injunction violated his First Amendment rights. The webcams were operated for a governmental purpose, the Court observed, not Arpaio's own personal communication. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the preliminary injunction. See: Demery v. Arpaio, 378 F.3d 1020 (9th Cir. 2004). The supreme court denied Arpaio's motion for review.

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