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Jail conditions lawsuit can go to trial, appeals court rules

July 25, 2011 |  1:08 pm

Sheriff Lee Baca

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca isn’t immune from liability in a racially motivated gang attack on an inmate at a county jail five years ago, a federal appeals court ruled Monday in sending the stabbing victim’s lawsuit to trial.

A panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February that Baca could be sued by the inmate, who alleges Baca is deliberately indifferent to unconstitutional conditions in the jails under his supervision.

The court addressed additional challenges of the lawsuit by Baca in Monday’s ruling, concluding that the inmate, Dion Starr, had made a plausible case against the sheriff for ultimate responsibility for the incident in which he was stabbed 23 times, including in the head.

In his lawsuit, Starr alleges a deputy unlocked his cell door, letting in Latino gang members who had massed outside the cell in which he was detained with another African American prisoner. 

Baca was made aware of racially violent conditions in the county jails in a 2005 report by a special investigator on previous incidents involving deaths or injuries to county jail inmates, Starr alleges.

A federal judge in Los Angeles had thrown out Starr's lawsuit in 2008, citing U.S. Supreme Court rulings that top law enforcement officials can't be held personally liable for discriminatory actions of their subordinates.

The 9th Circuit panel said those rulings didn't apply to the constitutional violations that Starr alleges.

A spokesman for Baca didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest ruling.


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-- Carol J. Williams

Photo: Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca on July 14. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times