ACLU v Garfield County Sheriff Suit Continues

The Garfield County Sheriff, Republican, Lou Vallario runs the jail in Glenwood Springs.  He is unopposed in this fall’s election in the county.

As noted previously at Colorado Confidential, the ACLU has sued him and other officials in his department, on behalf of inmates he has held in custody, in federal court.  The suit alleges that the Sheriff and his deupties have obstructed lawyer’s access to their clients and has used TASERs and other improper methods as punishment tools, rather than merely using them for the legal purpose of maintaining order in the jail.  The legal answer in the case has now been filed. A Typical Answer

The Answer claims that some of the violations alleged didn’t happen, that some disciplinary actions were taken for proper motives to control inmates, rather than as additional punishment, claims the plaintiff inmates are whiners, and claims various governmental immunities from suit under Colorado and Federal law.

In short, everything is in disupte and the 61 page document says all of the things one expects an answer to say, forcing the ACLU and the prisoners it represents to prove their case.

Next Step: Motion Practice

The next stages in the case will likely be an exchange of motions devoted to the governmental immunity issues in the case, and class action status, possibly accompanied by narrow evidentiary hearings on preliminary issues in the case, if affidavits on the key issues presented by the parties differ.  There will also likely be private and preliminary settlement discussions.

A trial, should one be held, is likely many months, or even years, away.

Governmental Immunity

The key issue in the governmental immunity claims will be whether there are 6th and 8th Amendment precedents that clearly prohibit the conduct the ACLU has claimed has taken place, and whether remedies within the jail system have been properly utilized.

Also at this stage, individual named Sheriff’s Department officials are also likely to distinguish themselves from the Department as a whole and claim lack of involvement with most or all of the incidents claimed.

The federal constitutional claims, by and large, are not controlled by state laws granting immunity to governmental officials, although they have have some impact on parallel statutory and constitutional claims under Colorado law.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act imposes some limits on the federal causes of action, most importantly, the requirement that internal complaint procedures be exhausted before filing suit.  The ACLU has alleged that those procedures were virtually non-existent in the Garfield County jail and were complied with to the extent possible.  It also requires that injuries claimed have a physical component.

Class Action Status

In establishing the class action case, the key issues will be whether “there are questions of law or fact common to the class”, the representative Plaintiff’s claims are “typical of the claims or defenses of the class” and “the party opposing the class has acted or refused to act on grounds generally applicable to the class, thereby making appropriate final injunctive relief or corresponding declaratory relief with respect to the class as a whole.”  Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23.

In short, class action status depends upon the judge agreeing the case case involve generally policies and practices of the jail, rather than isolated incidents. 

This is a more significant hurdle than the governmental immunity defenses asserted, because it requires an early gross assessment of the situation, at an early stage, without the benefit of much real evidence. 

Hat Tip to Progress Now.