.Legal Lockdown

Latest suit against Sonoma County raises spectre of federal takeover of local lockup

The deputies dragged Lopez to the mental health unit and stripped him naked. Covered in his own feces, Lopez pleaded for toilet paper. The deputies ignored his pleas, laughed at him and locked him naked in isolation covered in his own feces for two days . . .

No wonder Sonoma County went into legal-lockdown mode after news broke last week of a federal lawsuit. The above testimony is drawn from documents that are part of a suit that charges systematic torture by guards during an hours-long orgy of intimidation and violence that took place May 28.

Santa Rosa attorney Izaak Schwaiger brought the suit Oct. 5 on behalf of two plaintiffs who were at Sonoma County’s Main Adult Detention Facility jail that day, Marqus Martinez and Daniel Banks. Both say they were beaten or threatened by masked guards on the Special Emergency Response Team (SERT).

The county is named in the suit along with Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas, officers Mazen Awad and Brian Galloway, and up to 50 “John Doe” deputies. They are accused of going cell to cell to beat inmates on a segregation wing for up to five and a half hours, after Giovanni Montes, heavily medicated and asleep, did not respond to a morning “soap call” and was allegedly beaten by a guard.

Schwaiger says he expects more plaintiffs will be added to the suit; 20 men are alleged to have been victims in the incident and wrote letters to Schwaiger that detailed their treatment at the hands of the guards. The sheriff’s office has denied that any of it happened the way inmates say it did.

The suit against the facility is one of three now before the U.S. District Court in San Francisco that involve allegations of unconstitutional correctional activities at the jail.

Schwaiger is also representing Esa Roth in a 2013 incident where corrections officers Tasered Roth 20 times in an attempt to restrain him.

The incident with Roth was videotaped as part of jail procedure, as was the May 28 incident, or parts of it. Schwaiger is fighting to get the county to release the tapes.

A third federal lawsuit identified by Schwaiger involves a female inmate who charged she was sexually humiliated by a guard. The guard no longer works for the Sheriff’s Office.

Schwaiger has upped the justice ante in his latest suit by asking the court to appoint an independent monitor to the jail for up to three years. The move would implement a regime of federal oversight at the jail—a consent decree—with an aim to bring it into compliance with constitutional corrections norms. The American Civil Liberties Union has been involved in a number of these consent decrees, including one that was in place at the Los Angeles police department for over a decade, beginning in 2000.

The organization is not taking a position on the jail, but Micaela Davis, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, says in an email that “inmates in county jails around the state face poor conditions, inadequate provision of medical and mental-health care and conditions that foster violence against inmates. If a county is unwilling to fix these problems on its own, federal oversight can be an important tool to ensure compliance with constitutionally adequate conditions and care.”

As news of the suit broke last week, the Sheriff’s Office forcefully shot back, “[We] categorically deny the outrageous and inflammatory accusations delineated in the complaint,” and then said they would investigate. But if the Sheriff’s Office categorically denies any wrongdoing, what is there to investigate? In a statement, the department promised to conduct a further review, as it charged, “the correctional deputies were responding to the actions of a seemingly coordinated mass disturbance.”

Other county officials have declined to comment. Assistant County Counsel Cheryl Bratton says that her office doesn’t “specifically get into the details of any pending lawsuits” and could not identify who in the county would lead or be a part of the investigation, beyond Freitas.

“At this stage of the litigation, I cannot comment on that. All I can tell you is that the Sheriff’s Office and county are committed to transparency, and we will make information available as we can.”

Freitas and the county appear to have been caught off-guard by the suit, which came about after criminal defense lawyers told Schwaiger about the alleged beatings. The suit was co-filed with the Scott Law Firm in San Francisco.

Schwaiger has no confidence the county can investigate itself. Freitas will “never, ever make a finding against any of his deputies, ever, ever,” he says. And if there was no wrongdoing by the SERT team “then let’s see the videos.”

Schwaiger alerted Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch to his suit last week and asked that she investigate. Her office took a pass, and directed witnesses to the alleged beatings to contact the investigating body—which, unless and until the county says otherwise, is the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.


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