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Sheriff Lee Baca and His Suits of Many Colors

VOICES - Sheriff Lee Baca is in up to his shiny badge in lawsuits.  Here’s a brief overview of the latest five.
● The US Supreme Court justices let stand a decision of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, that refused to shield Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca from being sued for racial gang violence in the jails he supervises. No comments were issued by the US Supreme Court.

County lawyers argued that Lee Baca, LA County Sheriff since 1998, cannot be held personally liable in the stabbing of an inmate since he had no personal involvement in the incident.

The US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said that Baca can be sued for "deliberate indifference" to the inmate's rights since the sheriff knew about the jailhouse violence and failed to take action to stop it.

This case was brought by a former inmate, Dion Starr who claims he was stabbed 23 times by Latino gang members while in custody at Men’s Central Jail in 2006. He asserts that not only did a guard watch and refuse to come to his aid but he was kicked in the face by the guard. In his suit, Starr named Baca, the guards and deputies who were at the scene.

Starr’s attorney, Sonia Mercado said “Unless the supervisor is held accountable, nothing will change. This horrendous misconduct will continue.”

A Los Angeles lawyer, Timothy Coates, appealed to the Supreme Court in December. He urged the justices to throw out the claim against Baca. He claimed that, “plaintiffs’ lawyers try to win big damage judgments by naming top officials, whether or not they had a personal role in the actual case,” and “you can get dragged into lots of lawsuits”.

In 2008, US District Judge George Wu previously threw out the case, citing insufficient evidence to link Sheriff Baca to the 2006 incident.

In 2009; a 5-4 decision from the Supreme Court made it harder to sue top officials when it threw out a suit against former US Attorney General John Ashcroft. The court said plaintiffs need specific facts showing a top supervisor was directly involved in a constitutional violation. The suit was seeking to hold him liable for the arrest and jailhouse beating of Muslim men following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

● In a different federal civil rights lawsuit filed against Baca, on behalf of plaintiffs Alex Rosas and Jonathan Goodwin who were both county jail inmates, the claim was put forward that they were “beaten and threatened with violence by deputies of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department” and also “witnessed deputies beating other inmates”.

The executive director of the ACLU of Southern California stated that there is a pattern and practice in the LASD that has gone unpunished for several years.

The lawsuit reads, “Despite Sheriff Baca’s actual knowledge of this pattern of violence and cover-up, he has failed over a period of many years to take reasonable measures to halt the abuses.”

Serious allegations are made that dozens of inmates have been subjected to “grossly excessive force,” including “slamming inmates’ heads into walls, punching them in the face with fists, kicking them multiple times with boots, and shooting them multiple times with tasers.” resulting in serious injuries to inmates.

The suit alleges that deputies belonging to the “3000 Boys” gang inside the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles would “earn their ink” by breaking inmates’ bones.

ACLU released a report documenting inmate complaints. Soon after, the FBI launched an investigation into the alleged brutality.

● In another case, Baca was sued by the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) to obtain information about the Los Angeles County's ties to federal immigration enforcement efforts.

They charge that the sheriff violated the California Public Records Act by refusing to disclose information about his dealings with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and that Baca has not adequately responded to requests for information about Secure Communities, the Section 287(g) agreement and the Criminal Alien Program. They are also seeking guidelines and other detailed information about the programs.

The FBI automatically sends the fingerprints to ICE to determine immigration status on their databases. If an individual is unlawfully present in the United States or can be removable due to a criminal conviction, ICE is supposed to take enforcement action. They prioritize individuals who "present the most significant threats to public safety" according to the severity of their crime, their criminal history, or repeated violations of immigration laws

Section 287(g) of the Immigration Act “allows the federal government to work with state and local police, permitting local police to perform immigration law enforcement functions. They are supposed to be trained and supervised by sworn U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers”.

NILC has argued to Congress that, "two misguided trends have emerged in the relationship between police and immigration law: States have sought to legislate police involvement in the realm of federal immigration, and DHS has created deeply flawed programs that dictate how local police participate in federal immigration enforcement.”

● In yet another law suit, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) announced that they filed suit on behalf of noted documentary filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez, against the Sheriff’s Department. The writ of mandate seeks access to records referring to Ruben Salazar's death and autopsy, and the ensuing investigation. Salazar was a pro-Chicano Los Angeles Times columnist and KMEX-TV news director.

His death was chronicled by journalist Hunter S. Thompson in Rolling Stone. Salazar was covering the Chicano Moratorium march when he was shot in the head with a tear gas projectile on Aug. 29, 1970, by LA County Sheriff’s. His death left many questions unanswered. For years Sheriff Lee Baca refused to allow the department's records to be examined.

Phillip Rodriguez is a fellow at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. For over two years he has been working on his documentary  the “Ruben Salazar Project”. In 2010, Rodriguez put in a formal request to view the eight boxes on record from the sheriffs department.  Sheriff Lee Baca allowed the department's records to be examined by the documentary filmmaker but no copies were allowed.

Baca's superior, LA County Supervisor Gloria Molina, called on Baca to release the information.  MALDEF president Thomas A. Saenz believes that “The Sheriff's Department has justified its refusal of full disclosure by claiming the documents were exempt from public records requests or otherwise subject to limitations on reviewing and copying. However, Baca allowed public inspection of the records- thus waiving exemption rights- then refused to provide copies of the non-redacted documents he allowed to be inspected.

● One more lawsuit to mention, The Calguns Foundation (CGF) has filed a lawsuit on March 9, against Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and Los Angeles County. Jennifer Lu, et al. v. County of Los Angeles, et al. challenges the Sheriff’s ban on accepting and processing applications for carry licenses. California requires that people who desire to carry a handgun for self defense be licensed by the sheriff of the county in which they reside or by their city’s chief of police. The sheriffs cannot require applicants to first apply to the chief of police as a prerequisite to the application.

CGF Chairman Gene Hoffman stated, “Apparently, the Sheriff and County do not feel bound to follow the precedent they set when the California Court of Appeals ruled against them in 1976. We look forward to refreshing their memory.” In the case of Salute v. Pitchess, our prior Los Angeles Sheriff Peter Pitchess had “a fixed policy of not granting applications, except in a limited number of cases.”  The Court held that “it is the duty of the sheriff to make an investigation and determination, on an individual basis, on every application”

Jason Davis, attorney for the plaintiffs, said that “Sheriff Baca is circumventing state and constitutional law, and we’re confident that this case will bear that out.”

A copy of the complaint and case filings can be downloaded here.

There are those who feel the many lawsuits have now become a distraction and question Baca’s ability to lead the department. As one attorney noted, “one or two legal actions are par for the course but the cumulative effect of five … or perhaps more … could make this Sheriff a liability.”

(Lisa Cerda is an occasional contributor to CityWatch, a community activist, Chair of Tarzana Residents Against Poorly Planned Development, and former Tarzana Neighborhood Council board member.)

Tags: Sheriff, Sheriff Lee Baca, LA County, Supreme Court, ACLU, law suits, jail

Vol 10 Issue 36
Pub: May 4, 2012