GarCo Jail civil rights lawsuit costs taxpayers over $569K |

GarCo Jail civil rights lawsuit costs taxpayers over $569K

Pete Fowler
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Garfield County Sheriff's Office and Garfield County Jail in Glenwood Springs.
Post Independent file photo

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado ” It’s cost Garfield County taxpayers well over a half-million dollars so far to defend against an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit claiming excessive use of force with Tasers and other problems at the county jail.

As of last week, Garfield County was billed $569,641 by a Boulder law firm for thousands of hours of work to lead the defense against the ACLU’s claims that were filed in July 2006, according to accounts payable records.

“It’s a tremendous amount of money that the taxpayers have spent on this case and will continue to spend,” said Garfield County attorney Don Deford. “The lawsuit has been brought, and we have to defend against it if we don’t agree.”

The figure doesn’t take into account costs of work the county attorney’s office has done to help defend against the ACLU’s claims. The county is also defending against four other ongoing lawsuits the Sheriff’s Office is involved in. But the county doesn’t have to pay anything for those cases outside of the dues it’s paying to an insurance carrier that’s covering those cases.

Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, said the costly litigation could have been avoided if Sheriff Lou Vallario had been willing to discuss jail policy. But Vallario said the ACLU is on a mission to oppose the use of Tasers with frivolous lawsuits, and it will go jail to jail filing them until it finds a judge that agrees.

The law firm handling defense of the ACLU case is Berg, Hill, Greenleaf and Ruscitti, LLP. It has been submitting monthly bills based on a $200 per hour rate for the lead attorney, $180 per hour for two more attorneys working on the case, and $110 per hour for a paralegal. The largest bill was a June 2007 check for more than some people make in a year at $55,285.

Deford said that the county, as a government entity, is getting a better rate than the typical $300 or $400 per hour this work might otherwise cost.

The county brought in the Boulder law firm because the lead attorney in this case, Josh Marks, has experience working with governments, sheriffs and jail-related civil rights claims, Deford said. In addition, there’s simply too much work for the county attorney’s office to handle without hiring more attorneys, which would not be cost-effective, he said.

“As you can see from the billings, the workload here is tremendous,” Deford said.

Based on the $180 per hour rate, the law firm may have spent around 3,164 hours working on the case. Deford said one of the reasons the cost of the lawsuit is so high is because the ACLU obtained class-action status, meaning the case is currently filed on behalf of all Garfield County Jail inmates ” present, past and future.

That led to a “monumental” amount of discovery ” mainly documents and interviews ” required to be provided to the ACLU, Deford said.

The ACLU’s complaint in U.S. District Court alleges prisoners at the jail have been subjected to patterns of excessive force with things like Tasers, pepper-ball guns, restraint chairs, pepper spray and electroshock belts. It also claims the jail has failed to provide mental health treatment and punishes prisoners without due process.

Vallario said the claims are “ridiculous” and “frivolous” and that the jail treats inmates with respect and does not use excessive force or deny people treatment.

“We’ve booked about 30,000 people into the jail in the six years I’ve been sheriff, and we’ve used a Taser on maybe eight different individuals so I hardly think we’re out of control and using it against the entire class of inmates,” Vallario said.

He said it’s frustrating that after more than two years, the merits of the case haven’t yet been discussed in court. He said anyone can sue and trigger these kinds of expenditures of time and money regardless of whether their claims have any validity.

Vallario has personally spent “hundreds of hours” either digging up reports for disclosure, going to court, or doing other work relating to the ACLU’s lawsuit, he said.

“I think the taxpayers do need to realize how much money they’re wasting on this frivolous lawsuit,” he said.

Vallario said later, “I personally feel for the taxpayers in this.” He added that facing lawsuits is an unfortunate part of the job of being in law enforcement.

Don Christensen, executive director of the County Sheriff’s of Colorado, agreed that it’s common for inmates to file lawsuits over jail procedures and sue sheriffs. He said inmates sometimes do it recreationally or to alleviate boredom, and the lawsuits usually have very little merit.

“If you’re asking the question: Do we have a sheriff that’s causing lawsuits? I’m saying to you the answer is no because the mere fact that he’s a sheriff means he’s going to get sued,” said Christensen, who was once undersheriff in Douglas County. “I’ve been sued for lack of chocolate-chip cookies.”

“At the very outset of the case, the sheriff’s attorneys could have filed a motion to test any arguments that the case is frivolous. They didn’t do so because any such motion would have failed,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado.

“Lawsuits where prisoners are able to obtain the services of attorneys are not lawsuits filed because the prisoner was bored.”

Vallario said a motion to dismiss probably wasn’t filed because the legal definition of frivolous is “extreme” and goes far beyond the regular person’s or non-attorney’s definition of “a ridiculous waste of time.”

The four plaintiffs the ACLU originally named in the lawsuit are Samuel Lincoln, Clarence Vandehey, William Langley and Jared Hogue.

Lincoln, a methamphetamine addict, has been sentenced to around 332 years in prison for shooting at deputies in Mesa County, shooting a man six times in the desert outside Grand Junction, armed robbery and menacing. His most recent sentence was for nearly stabbing a man to death with a bayonet and robbing his trailer in West Glenwood Springs in 2004.

Silverstein said complaints from those original plaintiffs have been corroborated by an “exhaustive investigation,” and the ACLU will prove its claims largely through things like jail incident reports and medical records. Silverstein said previously that one jail incident report shows that a detention deputy ordering an inmate to put on a piece of clothing was instructed to “Tase him if he doesn’t comply.” Tasers should not be used in such cases of “passive noncompliance,” Silverstein said.

Silverstein said Vallario could have avoided the litigation and taxpayer expenses by showing a willingness to discuss jail policy.

“(Taxpayers) are having to spend that money because the sheriff refuses to modify the policies at the jail so that they comply with the constitution and the standard jail policies that are accepted by corrections professionals around the country,” Silverstein said. “When we were investigating, we were happy to sit down and talk about some issues in the policies. But what happened was in the midst of that, the sheriff invented a brand new policy that thwarted our ability to interview prisoners, and the sheriff said, ‘If you don’t like my policies there’s a courthouse right over there.'”

Vallario said it’s probably true that the litigation could have been avoided, but that would have meant handing over control of the jail to the ACLU.

“The bottom line is I was elected by the people to run that jail, not Mark Silverstein and the ACLU,” he said. “Until a judge tells me I’m doing something wrong, I don’t particularly care what the ACLU says.”

He said the jail has always had the practice of allowing an attorney to initiate a visit with an inmate they represent. But the jail was forced to create a policy with respect to that practice because the ACLU began trying to interview many inmates it didn’t represent, including some who wanted nothing to do with the ACLU, Vallario said.

U.S. District Judge Wiley Y. Daniel certified the class-action status of the ongoing lawsuit in March. But the defendants, Vallario and Jail Commander Scott Dawson, have appealed that decision based on a ruling in a similar case involving the El Paso County Jail.

Deford said the county has not had to spend any money on four other ongoing lawsuits involving the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office since 2006 because they are covered by the county’s insurance carrier. The insurance carrier doesn’t cover the ACLU lawsuit, he said, because the ACLU is seeking an injunction to stop practices at the jail it believes are wrong, rather than financial gain like the other lawsuits.

Among the lawsuits the insurance carrier is paying for: William Brent Huntley filed a lawsuit in February claiming jail staff ignored his medical needs in 2006, leading to a fall that caused him to lose sight in one eye. Adam Burke, another former inmate, filed a lawsuit in January claiming he was subjected to inappropriately long hours in a restraint chair after being shot with pellets that release a chemical similar to pepper spray.

Former jail employee and daughter of a county commissioner Lisa Martin also filed a lawsuit in May claiming she was wrongfully fired one year prior to that for complaining about harassment and other misconduct. Several of the claims were dismissed in federal court and the case was sent back to district court. Danny Martin filed a lawsuit last month claiming a Garfield County deputy shot him with a Taser unnecessarily twice during a 2006 traffic stop.

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