Suit alleging jail abuse to be reconsidered

A federal appeals court has ordered a lower court to reconsider a decision granting class-action status to a lawsuit alleging abuses at the Garfield County Jail.

Garfield County Attorney Don DeFord said the court’s action Wednesday is a “landmark decision.”

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision involves a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against Sheriff Lou Vallario and jail commander Scott Dawson on behalf of four inmates. The inmates and ACLU say jailers have violated constitutional rights through actions including inappropriate use of restraint chairs, pepper spray and other means of force in handling inmates.

The appeals court found that the district court made several mistaken findings in granting the class-action status. It also said the trial judge did not have the benefit of considering a recent 10th Circuit Court decision denying class certification for a similar lawsuit challenging practices in the El Paso County Jail.

The Garfield County Sheriff’s Department said in a news release that it is confident the trial judge, in reconsidering the matter, will decide to limit the case to the four inmates “so that we can move forward and finally present the merits of this case and eventually prevail.”

DeFord said the decision is significant in that it’s hard to get appeals courts to consider interim appeals filed before lower courts have ruled on a case’s merits. In addition, the decision establishes guidelines for certifying class-action status for cases involving jails, he said.

He said the class-action question is important because a lot of issues are raised if the Sheriff’s Department has to defend a case involving all inmates rather than just four.

The ACLU could not be reached for comment Friday. The ACLU had sought class-action status partly out of concern that the case would become moot with the four inmates’ departure from jail.

But the appeals court cautioned the district court against giving undue weight to “the danger of mootness.” The court said the four still could sue the Sheriff’s Department for damages “for the unconstitutional harms they allegedly suffered in their care.”

“While not affording (the ACLU) the wholesale injunctive remedy they currently request, an action for damages would allow a court to review the constitutionality” of the jail’s policies, the court said.

Said Vallario: “I’m glad that the appellate court saw it our way. I’m glad that now hopefully we’re going to start moving forward to resolve this thing.”


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