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Los Angeles County Sheriff Immune from Suit on Jail Housing Policies

by John E. Dannenberg

The California Court of Appeal held that the Los Angeles (L.A.) County Sheriff was immune from suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for injuries suffered by a prisoner who claimed his suffering was due to jail housing policies that failed to protect him from other prisoners. The legal question was whether the Sheriff acted as an agent of the State (enjoying 11th Amendment protection from suit) or of L.A. County (and was therefore exposed to municipal liability) when setting these policies. Because the plaintiff sued in state court, he was held to a California State Supreme Court holding on point; had he sued in federal court he might have gained the benefit of more favorable Ninth Circuit precedent on this issue.

Despite Deon Bougere?s repeated requests to jail staff to be moved to another facility, he was injured in attacks by other prisoners in the L.A. County Jail after receiving threats against his life based upon his ancestry, ethnicity and race. He sued L.A. County for his injuries under § 1983 in state superior court. That court sustained the County?s demurrer without leave to amend after holding that because the County?s policies were set by the Sheriff, who acted as a state official in operating the jail, the County was immune from suit.

On appeal, Bougere argued that the Sheriff?s prisoner placement policies were merely a custodial function (and hence a municipal policy) and not a law enforcement action (i.e., the act of a state agent). He relied on federal precedent on point, Streit v. County of Los Angeles, 236 F.3d 552 (9th Cir. 2001) [sheriff?s policy of over detention pending search for warrants and detainers] and Cortez v. County of Los Angeles, 294 F.3d 1186 (9th Cir. 2002) [sheriff?s policy segregating gang members from non-gang members], which characterized L.A. County Sheriff jail functions as custodial in nature and hence falling under the ambit of § 1983 municipal liability. The County, however, relied upon the more recent holding of the California State Supreme Court in Venegas v. County of Los Angeles, 32 Cal. 4th 820, 829 (2004), which exempted the Sheriff because he was carrying out law enforcement functions when setting policies of prisoner placement in the L.A. County jails.

The appellate court concurred, ruling that ?in setting and implementing policies and procedures concerning the assignment of inmates in the county jail, the Sheriff acts as a state officer performing state law enforcement duties, and not as a policymaker on behalf of the County.? The superior court?s ruling was affirmed. See: Bougere v. County of Los Angeles, 141 Cal.App.4th 237, 45 Cal.Rptr.3d 711 (Cal.App. 2 Dist., 2006), review denied.

Note: Similarly injured California jail prisoners would be wise to remove their § 1983 damage claims to federal court, and seek relief under Streit and Cortez.

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