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Articles by Lonnie Burton

Culture of Abuse and Corruption Plagues Jail in Denver, Colorado

by Lonnie Burton, Matt Clarke, David Reutter, Christopher Zoukis

When Jamal Hunter was arrested in April 2011 on three misdemeanor charges, he had no idea what was in store for him during his stay at the Denver City Jail. Not only was he choked and tasered by guards, he was ...

Wisconsin Court Orders Dismissal of Jail Negligence Suit

On October 16, 2014, District IV of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed a lower court and granted summary judgment in favor of defendants in a case brought by the estate of a prisoner who overdosed while at the Monroe County Jail.

Adrianna Seroy was found dead in her cell during a routine morning cell inspection by guards. It was later determined that Seroy died from an overdose of drugs smuggled into the jail by her cellmate, Alexeandra Leuck, who was in the jail's work release program. (Due to overcrowding, work release prisoners were often housed with a non-work release prisoner.)

In their complaint, Seroy's relatives claimed the jail was negligent in several ways, including (1) failure to properly search Leuck upon her return from work release,

(2) failure to enforce jail rules which prohibited prisoners from sleeping with their heads covered, and (3) failure to conduct proper cell checks during the night that would have discovered Seroy's condition. The suit contended that each of these failures contributed to Seroy's death.

Seroy's relatives sued Leuck and Monroe County. The County moved for summary judgment, which was denied by the circuit court and the County appealed ...

Washington Supreme Court Sanctions Seattle Police for Failure to Comply With Public Records Act

Since 2007, Seattle Police Department's (SPD) entire patrol fleet has been equipped with in-car video and sound recording equipment ("dash-cam"). In 2010, a reporter from KOMO News, Tracy Vedder, made several requests to the SPD under the state Public Records Act (PRA). She asked for dash-cam training manuals, log sheets, and a list of any and all digital in-car recordings that had been tagged for retention by the SPD.

The SPD denied all of Vedder's requests. They contended the training manuals were protected copyright materials and fit the PRA's exception for "material essential to law enforcement." As to Vedder's other two requests, the SPD claimed it had no records responsive to her requests.

After those denials, Vedder made another PRA request, this time seeking actual copies of all dash-cam recordings that had been retained by the SPD. The SPD responded saying the state's privacy laws prevented their release.

Meanwhile, in 2011, Eric Rachner, a private citizen, requested and received from the SPD a list of all dash-cam recordings retained by the SPD -- the same request that was denied to Vedder a year earlier. After Vedder and KOMO learned of the Rachner disclosures, they filed suit ...

Florida Supreme Court: Unauthorized Absence from Work is 'Escape from Custody' for Work Release Prisoner

In a decision handed down on September 3, 2016, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the escape conviction of a man who left his work site without permission while he was on work release. The ruling paved the way for the case to be returned to the lower court for trial.

Claudio J. Poillot was serving a 48-month sentence in the Florida Department of Corrections ()OC) when he was sent to the Kissimmee Community Center, a DOC work release facility. As part of the work release program, Poillot began work at a construction company, where he was required to be at work from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday. However, on July 29, 2014, Poillot left work early without permission. When he timely reported back to the work release center before 5:00 p.n., he was placed unler arrest for escape.

After a hearing, the trial court granted Poillot's motion to dismiss, ruling that the state could not make a prima facie case for escape.

Florida's Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and reinstated the charge, and the case ultimately wound up before the Florida Supreme Court.

The question before the Supreme ...

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Upholds Conviction for Contacting Victim

On April 27, 2016, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the conviction of a Texas state prisoner for Improper Contact with a Victim.

David Schlittler was convicted of aggravated sexual assault of his five-year-old stepdaughter. He was placed on deferred adjudication community supervision but violated its terms and was subsequently adjudicated and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. While a prisoner, he had a third party use a social media website to relay messages to and from his son, the half-brother of his victim, who was living with their mother. The mother became aware of the communication and alerted prison officials.

Texas Penal Code Section 38.111 prohibits prisoners convicted of certain sex offenses against minors from contacting the victim or minor members of the victim's family. Schlittler was convicted of violating Section 38.111 and appealed. The court of appeals affirmed and Schlittler sought discretionary review in the Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) alleging the statute was unconstitutional in that it interfered in his liberty interest in the care, custody and management of his son in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment due process and equal protection rights.

The CCA held that Schlittler had no liberty interest in contacting ...

Private Prison Company Not Liable for Guard's Death in Riot

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) successfully moved in federal court to dismiss a suit brought by the survivors of a guard who was killed by prisoners during a riot in 2012.

On May 20, 2012, prisoners rioted at the Adams County Corrections Center (ACCC) in Mississippi. According to court records, prisoners at ACCC were treated inhumanely and were deprived of basic needs. This created a "dangerous atmosphere" at the short-handed private prison, according to the lawsuit filed by the family of Catlin Carithers, the guard who was killed during the riot.

Carithers was apparently on a "hit list" of guards to be harmed during the riot. Two days before the riot, an informant warned prison staff that Carithers was on the "hit list," according to the complaint.

But on the day of the riot, Carithers was not at work. He was called in to work by a security officer who knew Carithers was on the "hit list," according to the lawsuit.

Shortly after he arrived at work on May 20, 2012, Carithers was killed in the riot.

His survivors sued CCA, claiming CCA was liable for Carithers' death by creating the dangerous environment at ACCC, not hiring enough staff, mistreating ...

NY: Prisoner's Abuse Claim Survives Motion to Dismiss

On December 2, 2014, a federal judge denied New York City's attempt to dismiss a suit filed by a Riker's Island prisoner who claimed he was attacked and beaten by a jail guard without provocation or justification.

The excessive force case was actually the third of four lawsuits filed by Hugh Smith, now 40. In his first case, Smith sued because jail officials changed his telephone PIN number without notice. While that case was pending, Smith filed another case against Riker's Island alleging improper religious accommodations. In late May 2012, Smith and the city of New York entered in to a settlement agreement in Smith I for $750. Smith, acting pro se -- and who has a history of mental problems -¬signed a general release discharging the city from "any and all liability, claims or rights of action alleging violation of my civil rights, from the beginning of the world to the date of this general release."

At the time he signed the release, Smith had retained an attorney who had already filed notices of claim on two other actions against the city, including the excessive force case (Smith III) and a negligence claim alleging improper supervision by ...

Nevada Prisoner Receives $500, Other Considerations, in Settlement of Complaint Asserting Numerous Civil Rights Violations

On April 18, 2016, the Nevada Department of' Corrections (NDOC) agreed to pay a state prisoner $500 and make other policy changes' as part of a settlement agreement resolving the federal civil rights action which alleged, among other things, free speech, due process, equal protection, and freedom of religion violations ...

Nebraska Supreme Court Says Prisoners Have No Constitutional Right to Own a Typewriter

On September 9, 2016, the Nebraska Supreme Court dismissed a complaint filed by a prisoner who was not allowed access to his personal typewriter, ruling that under the United States Constitution, prisoners do not have a Sixth Amendment right to access a typewriter.

The case started when Nebraska state prisoner Steven M. Jacob sent out his typewriter for repairs. For years, Jacob had legally possessed a Brother ML500 typewriter with text memory capabilities. In March 2013, the Nebraska Department of Corrections (DOC) changed its rules and no longer allowed typewriters with memory. Jacob was told prior to sending out his typewriter that it would not be allowed back in to the institution. He sent it out anyway.

Jacob grieved the DOC, arguing that his right to access the courts was being impaired by DOC's refusal to return his typewriter to him. Jacob also sought a declaratory order in the district court for Lancaster County, stating that he had a right to possess his typewriter under Neb. Rev. Stat. Sect. 83-4, 123 (Reissue 2014). The DOC denied Jacob's grievance and the district court likewise dismissed his claim.

Jacob then filed a "Petition for Review of Administrative Order and Declaratory ...

MN: Jail Strip Search of Drug Suspect Held Constitutional

Jonathan Jacobson was arrested in 2009 for driving while under the influence of alcohol. He admitted to the Stewartsville, Minnesota police officer that he recently "smoked a bowl" of marijuana. Jacobson was booked in to the county jail and released. Prior to his release, however, jail guards conducted a strip search of Jacobson, which included a visual body cavity search. Jacobson sued, claiming that search violated his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

According to court records, officers searched Jacobson's car and person and found no contraband. At the county jail, where strip searches of booked prisoners are not mandatory and must be based on "reasonable suspicion," guards claim they determined that a strip search of Jacobson was necessary because "it was possible Mr. Jacobson had more illegal drugs on his person."

According to jail staff witnesses, after Jacobson was strip searched and no contraband was found, he was placed in a booking area populated by arrestees who will be housed in the jail and others who will be released. The jail claimed they had no way to separate the two groups and thus the need to strip search those they suspected of concealing contraband.

After Jacobson filed suit in ...


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