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Supreme Court rejects bid to shield Sheriff Lee Baca from lawsuit

April 30, 2012 |  8:32 am

Sheriff Lee Baca

The U.S. Supreme Court refused Monday to shield Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca from being sued for racial gang violence in the jails he supervises.

The justices without comment turned down an appeal from the county’s lawyers, who argued Baca cannot be held personally liable for the stabbing of an inmate since he had no personal involvement in the incident.

Instead, the court let stand a decision of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which said Baca can be sued for “deliberate indifference” to the inmate’s rights since he was on notice of the jailhouse violence and failed to take action to stop it.

Dion Starr says he was stabbed 23 times by Latino gang members at the Central Men’s Jail in 2006. He also says he was kicked in the face by a guard who saw the incident and refused to come to his aid. In his suit, Starr named Baca as well as the guards and deputies who were at the scene.

Sonia Mercado, a lawyer for Starr, said it is important that the county sheriff be named in the suit.

“Unless the supervisor is held accountable, nothing will change. This horrendous misconduct will continue,” she said.

Timothy Coates, a Los Angeles lawyer, appealed to the high court in December, urging the justices to throw out the claim against the sheriff. He said plaintiffs’ lawyers try to win big damages judgments by naming top officials, whether or not they had a personal role in the actual case.

“If you are the head of an agency, you are a big target, and you can get dragged into lots of lawsuits,” he said.

Judges in California had been split over whether there was enough evidence for the suit against Baca to go forward. U.S. District Judge George Wu in Los Angeles threw out the claim against the sheriff in 2008, since there was no evidence personally linking Baca to the jailhouse stabbing.

The Supreme Court in 2009 also made it harder to sue top officials. In a 5-4 decision, it threw out a suit against former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft seeking to hold him liable for the arrest and jailhouse beating of Muslim men following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The court said plaintiffs need specific facts showing a top supervisor was directly involved in a constitutional violation. Afterward, a divided 9th Circuit allowed the suit against Baca to go forward.


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-- David Savage in Washington

Photo: Sheriff Lee Baca on April 10. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times