OROVILLE -- A federal judge has dismissed many of the
allegations in a multi-million-dollar civil rights lawsuit
alleging government discrimination against five black criminal
defendants in Butte County.
The plaintiffs, at least three of whom are now in prison,
alleged the county violated their right to a speedy trial, the
right to be represented by "competent and attentive"
court-appointed counsel, imposed excessive bail on them to try
to coerce guilty pleas, deprived them of a representative jury
of their peers and generally "treated them differently from
the way Caucasian inmates were treated."
The $14 million lawsuit also alleged excessive force by
some arresting officers and charged that while incarcerated,
Butte County jailers improperly monitored conferences with
their attorneys, opened their legal mail and refused them
needed treatment for a variety of medical problems, including
a serious heart condition.
Without regard to whether the lawsuit had any merit, U.S.
District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. upheld pretrial
arguments by the county that it is not legally liable for many
of the inmates' claims.
The judge specifically threw out all allegations pertaining
to actions by non-county agencies or individuals, including
the district attorney, private public defenders and state
judges — none of whom were named in the lawsuit.
For example, the judge ruled the state court — not the
county — sets policies regarding reasonable bail in criminal
cases and ensuring a representative jury pool.
Any claims of improper legal representation or
investigative services should be addressed to the public
defenders appointed by the court to defend the five
plaintiffs, the federal judge added.
In his 20-page written ruling, the judge noted the U.S.
Supreme Court had twice upheld the government's right to
eavesdrop on jail communications between an inmate and his
attorney, absent a showing that the information was somehow
later "used against" the individual.
The judge let stand for now a handful of other allegations
in the suit pertaining to the Butte County Jail, including a
failure to properly train staff and provide adequate medical
care for four of the plaintiffs, Edgar Collins, Charles
Mitchell, Terrance Haltiwanger and Marshall McMurray.
In a follow-up letter, Scott H. Cavanaugh, a Sacramento
attorney who was retained by the county to defend the suit,
said apparently also still at issue in the case are excessive
force allegations brought by Collins and a fifth plaintiff,
Victor Wyatt, as well as charges arresting officers planted
drugs on both Collins and McMurray.
The federal magistrate had originally issued his decision
last November, but gave the plaintiffs' attorney, Ellen C.
Dove, a Sacramento civil rights lawyer, an opportunity to try
to amend the suit accordingly.
When Dove was unable to substantiate her legal position
that the county is ultimately responsible for the alleged
civil rights violations, the judge ordered the bulk of the
suit pertaining to "non-county actors" dismissed.
Reached for comment, Dove said she felt many of the alleged
abuses against her clients were by "county-paid individuals
acting under the color of law."
"The real question," she said, "is the state or government
agency responsible for the behavior of a county-paid employee
acting within the scope of their employment?"
Asked why she didn't bring the suit in the state court,
Dove, who also represents a white inmate in a similar $3
million federal lawsuit against the Butte County Jail, said
"we wanted to keep this in the federal arena as a civl rights
Because his firm was hired as outside legal counsel to
defend the suit, Cavanaugh referred all comment on the judge's
ruling to Butte County Counsel Bruce Alpert.
Alpert would only say, "We take this very seriously; we are
defending the case vigorously and expect to prevail."