In 2013, a federal jury found then-Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, as well as three deputies and one former captain, personally liable for punitive damages in an inmate abuse case. Last week, the LA County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to pay the damages on behalf of the deputies and the captain. The board chose not to cover the damages owed by Baca. The Supes’ decision to indemnify those involved in the beating garnered criticism during this week’s board meeting.
The plaintiff, Tyler Willis, claimed that deputies brutally beat him in 2009 while he was awaiting trial in Men’s Central Jail. Willis said that without any provocation, the deputies strip searched and humiliated him in a very public setting. Then, the deputies involved moved him to a different location and proceeded to kick, punch, hit with a flashlight, and repeatedly shocked with a Taser. During the beating, Willis’ leg was broken in two places, requiring a full leg cast. Willis also suffered multiple head wounds, face wounds, taser burns, and large bruises all over his body, and a displaced fracture of the bone behind his nose. (Read the complaint: here.)
The jury found that the involved deputies, Anthony Vazquez, Mark Farino, and Pedro Guerrero, their supervisor, former-Captain Daniel Cruz, and Sheriff Baca, acted in a way that was “malicious, oppressive or in reckless disregard of [Willis’] rights.”
Specifically, Baca was assessed $100,000 in punitive damages, Cruz was assessed $35,000, and the three deputies who beat Willis were asked to pay $10,000 each.
Willis sued Baca “in his personal and individual capacity as a supervisory official for his own culpable actions or inactions. The sheriff was “responsible with the administration of the defendant LASD and its employees, and for the supervision, training, and hiring” of department members, including the deputies responsible for Willis’ beating, according to the complaint.
The supervisors voted to authorize the payment of $65,000 in damages on behalf of the deputies and former captain. Baca will remain on the hook for his portion.
Misconduct and brutality at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has resulted in criminal convictions for 21 department members, including Baca, who will be sentenced on May 12. In March, a jury found the former sheriff guilty of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice, plus a single count of lying to federal investigators. (Read more about the Baca trial in WitnessLA’s Series section.)
On Tuesday, Willis’ lawyers, Sonia Mercado and R. Samuel Paz, asked the board to reconsider its decision to pay the punitive damages for the deputies and Cruz, arguing that the board’s indemnification of the three deputies and captain would be “overthrowing” the jury’s verdict and “overruling” the 9th Circuit Appeals Court’s affirmation of that verdict. According to Mercado, while the supervisors have the authority to pay for the “malicious conduct” of the sheriff’s department members, the authority is “not unfettered.” The supes, according to Mercado, must find that the officers acted without malice, in order to indemnify them.
“It’s hard to get a punitive damage award against deputies. It’s even harder to get it against a captain of a jail,” Samuel Paz added. The lawyer pointed out that the judgment against Baca appeared to be unprecedented.
“I think this was the first time in California’s history where a sitting sheriff had punitive damages awarded against him,” Paz said. “So I would join in the request to have you reconsider your vote of last week.”
As of Thursday morning, there had been no change to the board’s decision to pay the damages.