Lawsuit Proceeds Over Conditions at Orange County, California Jail
by Ed Lyon
A federal civil rights lawsuit filed in April 2019 against Orange County, California Sheriff Don Barnes was granted class-action status in September 2019 to include all detainees at the Orange County Jail (OCJ) whose telephone conversations with their attorneys were illegally recorded by GTL, the jail’s phone contractor. [See: PLN, May 2019, p.14].
Among the named plaintiffs are three criminal defense attorneys: Stephen Bartol, Walter Cole and Ronald McGregor. They all claim that their phone conversations with clients at the jail were illegally monitored and recorded by OCJ staff.
Sheriff Barnes admitted that contracted staff had improperly monitored 58 such calls, a number he later amended to 347. But the plaintiffs claim the number of phone calls illegally monitored and recorded was actually “in the hundreds of thousands,” based on the sheriff’s own estimate of 60,000 annual bookings at OCJ. The jail system has an average daily population of 5,400 detainees.
The plaintiffs in the case are represented by attorneys Joel Garson, Richard Herman and Nicholas Kohan. It was Garson who uncovered the illegal phone monitoring and recording activity at the jail when he discovered his trial strategy had been revealed to prosecutors during a criminal proceeding for his client, OCJ prisoner Josh Waring, son of Real Housewives of Orange County cast member Lauri Peterson.
The lawsuit also alleges other egregious civil rights violations, including claims that one prisoner, Mark Moon, was placed in solitary confinement for five years, and another detainee, Jonathan Tieu, part of a group of prisoners who escaped in January 2016, was held in lockdown for 23 hours a day.
Yet another named plaintiff – Johnny Martinez, believed now to lead the Mexican Mafia in Orange County – said his religious rights were violated because the only priest available to hear his confession at the jail was also employed as a deputy.
In September 2019, the suit was amended and refiled to include the wrongful deaths of three newborn infants at OCJ, allegedly caused by the negligence of jailers and medical personnel.
The first infant death occurred in March 2016. After prisoner Sandra Quinones’ water broke, she was made to wait two hours before a pair of guards took her in a van to a local hospital, reportedly stopping along the way at a Starbucks for a coffee break, according to the amended complaint. The baby died at the hospital.
Another prisoner, Ciera Stoetling, gave birth at the jail in May 2018 without an attending doctor because it was the weekend and there was no physician at the medical unit. Nurses allegedly refused to transfer Stoetling to a hospital due to a staff shortage there. Instead, they told her she would have to wait until Monday before a doctor could attend the birth. The child – who couldn’t wait that long – was born and died at the jail.
Orange County prosecutors called both deaths “natural” and declined to file charges against OCJ medical staff or jailers.
The third infant death occurred in July 2019 at a hospital, where the mother, identified only as Jane Doe, had been taken. Though the woman was returned to OCJ, her name was not listed in the jail’s records. Attorneys who added the unknown prisoner to the class-action suit after learning of her infant’s death believe she is being “hidden in the system” by OCJ staff, who are keeping her name out of the facility’s computerized records.
“It’s crazy stuff, just unbelievable,” said Herman, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys who is also a veteran jail observer, formerly appointed by a federal judge to monitor OCJ.
Josh Waring’s case has received media attention both because of his famous actress mother and due to the illegal phone eavesdropping scheme uncovered by his attorney, Garson. For that claim alone the suit seeks $500 million in damages. The 30-year-old Waring, who is charged with the 2016 shooting death of a fellow resident at his Santa Ana sober-living home, also claims that he has been denied access to religious services and his grievances filed at the jail were mishandled.
Further, Waring said that in retaliation for making complaints he was stripped of his designation as a vulnerable prisoner and placed in the general population at OCJ. It was there that he was allegedly targeted and shot by deputies with pepper ball guns in June 2018, in retaliation for exposing the call-recording scheme. Deputies Ever Zeyala and Ryan Hansen were investigated by the sheriff’s department but no charges were filed against them.
Waring also claimed that his attempt to adjust the television set in the day room was used by deputies as a pretext to place him in solitary confinement for 10 days, during which time he was denied access to his anti-seizure medication and also “green-lighted” for being attacked by other prisoners. He was then placed in a lockdown unit where only one prisoner is supposed to be out of his cell at a time.
But one of those other prisoners, Jose Dejesus Guzman, hid in the day room area while Waring was out of his cell, then assaulted him with a homemade knife as he returned from making a phone call on October 9, 2019. The attack resulted in wounds to Waring’s face and chest that required 20 staples, stitches and butterfly bandages. Sheriff’s department spokeswoman Carrie Braun said an investigation is ongoing.
At a November 2019 hearing before Orange County Superior Court Judge Jonathan Fish, deputy Stephen Hipple was questioned about the training he had received regarding surveillance camera blind spots like the one that Guzman used to hide and attack Waring. In response, Hipple invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.
In an earlier hearing before Judge Fish, deputies Zeyala and Hansen also pleaded the Fifth Amendment when refusing to answer questions about the pepper ball incident. The judge then lifted a ban on video footage of the incident, allowing Deputy District Attorney Cindy Nichols to review it. She told Fish she was not aware that others in her office had declined to file charges immediately after that incident. Kimberly Edds, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office, later said the decision regarding the charges was under review.
At the November 2019 hearing, Nichols also told Judge Fish that she had just received police reports on the then-16-month-old pepper ball incident – reports that Orange County officials said did not exist when Garson had subpoenaed them earlier. The county’s Custodian of Records was called to testify at a follow-up hearing.
While federal district judge James Selna accepted the amended lawsuit, he said he would allow only a few of the original causes of action in the case to proceed. See: Moon v. County of Orange, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 8:19-cv-00258-JVS-KES.
Surveillance video at the jail also features prominently in a separate lawsuit against the Orange County Sheriff’s Department that alleges seven guards killed a prisoner.
Filed in April 2019 by attorney Cameron Sehat on behalf of the estate of a man arrested for disturbing the peace while reportedly suffering an anxiety attack, the suit alleges that upon his arrival at the jail, Cristobal Solano, 33, was “sadistically tortured” and finally killed by the jailers when they “violently pushed his face down onto a concrete bunk,” dropped his head on the floor, twisted his limbs, kneed him in the back, piled onto him with all their weight – an estimated total of 1,000 pounds – and responded to his repeated cries of “I can’t breathe” with a terse command to “stop resisting.”
After reviewing surveillance video footage of the April 2018 incident, Orange County prosecutors found “no evidence to support a finding of criminal culpability on the part of any” jail staff.
In statements to the press, Sheriff Barnes said the “claims of inhumane treatment at Orange County jails are patently inaccurate,” adding that “many of the allegations in the lawsuit are rooted in a perspective that is anti-incarceration.”
Sources: latimes.com, mynewsla.com, nbclosangeles.com, ocregister.com, ocweekly.com, tmz.com, vice.com