County Challenges Jail Abuse Lawsuit By Claiming Inmates Filed No Grievances

The success of a federal lawsuit alleging San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies abused and tortured inmates at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga could hinge on a court’s determination of whether that abuse and threats of further abuse prevented the defendants from reporting their ordeals to sheriff’s department higher-ups.
The lawsuit, filed by attorneys Stan Hodge, Jim Terrell and Sharon Bruner on behalf of inmates John Hanson, Lamar Graves, Brandon Schilling, Michael Mesa, Christopher Sly and Eddie Caldera allege they were physically and psychologically tortured by deputies from January 1, 2013 through March of this year. According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs were submitted to abuse and torture that included being shocked with Taser guns, having shotguns held to their heads, being rectally invaded during unreasonably aggressive pat down searches, and having their arms pulled up behind their backs while handcuffed.
Three deputies were fired by the sheriff’s department in March, shortly after the FBI began a probe of abuse of prisoners in the county’s jails.
In mounting a defense to the case, the county has so far not sought to deny that the prisoners were accorded the harsh treatment alleged in the lawsuit but is initially pinning its hopes on having the lawsuit dismissed because the plaintiffs failed to exhaust the administrative remedies available to them before filing the lawsuit.
In this way, the county has cited the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a U.S. federal law enacted by Congress in 1996 in response to an increase in prisoner litigation in the federal courts and which was intended to decrease the incidence of what was deemed “frivolous” litigation relating to the treatment of inmates. Among the provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act aimed at curbing prison litigation was an “exhaustion” requirement. Before prisoners may challenge a condition of their confinement in federal court, the act requires them to first exhaust available administrative remedies by pursuing to completion whatever inmate grievance and/or appeal procedures their prison custodians provide.
Attorneys for the defendants have made a filing with the court requesting that attorneys for the plaintiffs clarify, through an amendment to the federal complaint, on how it was that the inmates exhausted all their “administrative remedies” prior to filing the lawsuit.
It appears, however, that Hodge, Terrell and Bruner anticipated the defense move. They agreed to modify the original complaint.
More than a week before defense attorneys filed their motion, there were press accounts, which seemingly emanated from the plaintiff’s camp that dealt with severe challenges inmates at the county’s jails are faced with in seeking to utilize the administrative process to lodge complaints or file grievances.
According to not only the plaintiffs but other inmates at the jail uninvolved in the litigation, deputies working at the jails are extremely resistant to facilitating the grievance process and have on certain occasions simply refused to provide inmates with grievance forms or used intimidation in an effort to dissuade prisoners from filing complaints.
Hodge is a former Superior Court judge. Along with Terrell and Bruner, he is now seeking to document, to the extent possible, that their clients, and by extension others, faced an unreasonable and even illegal burden in exhausting their administrative remedies.
Once the amended complaint is filed, the county’s attorneys will have until July 11 to respond to it. The Sentinel has learned that the county is already seeking to obtain information, from both deputies who have served as guards at the county’s jails and from inmates, to rebut assertions that inmates faced an uphill battle in lodging complaints about their treatment at the hands of their captors.
That rebuttal will need to extend beyond events occurring at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga, where all of the mistreatment alleged in the federal lawsuit was alleged to have occurred. Inmates housed at the county’s central jail in San Bernardino and at the recently opened High Desert Detention Center in Adelanto have come forward to corroborate what the plaintiffs have alleged about being unable to bring the action of lower ranking deputies to the attention of their supervisors at the West Valley Detention Facility in Rancho Cucamonga.
One way the county hopes to show that avenues of communication with senior jail administrators were open is to cite, and produce,  grievances filed by other inmates.
Despite the county’s current efforts to vindicate the actions of sheriff’s department jailors, action that was already taken by the sheriff’s department has implicated several of the lowest ranking members of the department in abuse of prisoners of the type alleged in the lawsuit.
In March, three deputies – Brock Teyechea, Andrew Cruz, and Nicholas Oakley, each of whom had been with the sheriff’s department for less than a year, were ignominiously fired.
The lawsuit brought by Hanson, Graves, Schilling, Mesa, Sly and Caldera names Teyechea, Cruz and Oakley. It also names deputies Robert Escamilla, Robert Morris, Russell Kopasz, Daniel Stryffeler and Eric Smale, and civilian custody specialist Brandon Stockman, all of whom remain with the department.
The deputies’ two supervisors up the chain of command, captain Jeff Rose and sheriff John McMahon, are also named in the lawsuit. The Sentinel was unable to confirm a report that efforts are ongoing to have Teyechea, Cruz and Oakley “go quietly,” i.e., accept the loss of their employment and accede to likely eventual criminal convictions for their action that will grow out of the FBI probe and U.S. Attorney’s Office’s action without implicating any of their former colleagues or supervisors in the sheriff’s office, thus allowing the county to represent the inmate abuse issue as an isolated one that was quickly and responsibly redressed, alleviating the county from the imposition of punitive damages as a result of the lawsuit.
Criminal charges of deputies determined to have been involved in the mistreatment of inmates is a given, a former sheriff’s deputy told the Sentinel. “It may take a while, but it’s coming,” the 15-year sheriff’s department veteran said. “Just like it happened with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department when the FBI got involved with what is happening in the jails there.”
The combination of the lawsuit and the FBI involvement in the case has created a perilous circumstance for the officers alleged to have been involved in the abuse and the sheriff’s department as well as the county and its taxpayers. One element of that peril is the obliteration of the Garrity protection law enforcement officers normally have during a probe by their department into any wrongdoing they are suspected of having engaged in while in uniform. When being questioned by their own department’s investigators or internal affairs officers about their action, they are normally given the same Miranda Rights warning as citizens being arrested. If the officers then do not waive their Miranda Rights and continue to maintain their silence during questioning, they are issued an order compelling them to give a statement or otherwise face discipline or discharge. Garrity Rights provide a law enforcement officer with a guarantee that those statements he/she makes under the threat of discipline or discharge will not be used in the criminal prosecution of the officer.
Because the FBI is doing the questioning, however, the Garrity protection does not apply. It is illegal to lie to an FBI agent. Though statements made to the FBI are initially kept confidential to protect the integrity of an ongoing investigation, at some point a transcript of the interview will become available to attorneys for use in the civil proceedings.

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