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Ninth Circuit: Los Angeles County Not Liable for Occasional Over-Detentions

In an official-capacity action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy D. Baca, the plaintiffs alleged they remained in the custody of the Sheriff’s Department, in violation of their constitutional rights, for periods of time ranging from 26 to 29 hours after a court had ordered their release. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit upheld the district court’s second grant of summary judgment to Sheriff Baca on the ground that the evidence proffered by the parties, when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, did not support a finding of deliberate indifference.

In a previous opinion, Berry v. Baca, 379 F.3d 764 (9th Cir. 2004) [PLN, March 2005, p.32], the Ninth Circuit had reversed the district court’s prior grant of summary judgment to Baca. In so ruling, the Court of Appeals explained that the district court had failed to apply the analytical framework appropriate for determining whether or not “action pursuant to official policy of some nature caused a constitutional tort,” citing Monell v. Dep’t. of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). In particular, the Ninth Circuit said the district court had failed to address the issue of deliberate indifference.

Following remand, both sides submitted evidence in the form of exhibits and declarations. That evidence indicated that the Sheriff’s Department processed tens of thousands of detainees every year and, during the period under review, had released nearly 51,000 prisoners. While the exact number of over-detentions exceeding 24 hours was disputed, it was not disputed that the number had peaked in 1997 (at approximately 250) and had declined every subsequent year through 2004. Moreover, it was clear that the total number of over-detentions during the time period at issue did not exceed a few dozen.
Additionally, there was no dispute that the Sheriff’s Department had instituted several measures designed to reduce the number of over-detentions.

Based on the evidence presented, the district court concluded that as a matter of law, given the volume of detainees and the attendant administrative paperwork that must be processed to ensure any given release is not improper, a few dozen over-detentions during a period of several years was “reasonable and cannot constitute a Monell deliberate indifference claim.”

The Ninth Circuit affirmed in a February 5, 2010 decision, holding that based on the evidentiary record, including the curative steps taken by the Sheriff’s Department, “no reasonable jury could find that the defendant was oblivious of, or indifferent to, over-detentions.” See: Mortimer v. Baca, 594 F.3d 714 (9th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Mortimer v. Baca