SEATTLE — County jails are not liable for crimes committed by inmates after they are out of custody, according to a split ruling Thursday by the Washington state Supreme Court.
A lawyer representing the victims’ families called the ruling “a dangerous opinion for public safety.”
The 5-4 ruling came in the case of Isaac Zamora, who had a psychotic episode in 2008 and killed six people, including a Skagit County Sheriff’s Deputy, soon after being released from the jail over objections from his mother.
Families of the victims sued Skagit County, claiming the jail failed to evaluate and treat Zamora’s mental illness, but the trial judge sided with the county, saying the jail only has a duty to control a person while they’re incarcerated. An appeals court reversed that decision, but five justices agreed with the trial judge.
Jails are responsible for controlling inmates while in custody, the justices said, “but they do not have a general duty to prevent such inmates from committing crimes after they are lawfully released from incarceration.”
Phil Talmadge, a former state senator and Supreme Court justice who represents the families, said the ruling was “extraordinarily damaging” and “really distressing.”
“If you have an inmate who is manifestly experiencing mental health problems, you now have a free pass to be oblivious to that person’s mental health distress and the likely consequences of that person’s release,” Talmadge told The Associated Press. “Why would they want to provide any kind of treatment if they bare no liability consequences?”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington said it agreed with the court’s ruling. The ACLU had filed a brief in the case saying jails are required to meet the mental and health needs of an inmate while they’re in custody, but “increasing jails’ liability for unforeseeable actions of inmates after they are released goes too far.”
“Over-reliance on incarceration in the criminal justice system is not the answer,” the group said. “What’s needed is sufficient investment in effective mental health treatment to prevent future risks to public safety, not asking our jails to be solely responsible for those important services even after inmates are released from custody.”
The dissenting justices said the jail knew that Zamora was potentially dangerous.
Zamora was jailed in April 2008 on non-violent charges but was housed in a section of the jail for inmates who are “disruptive” or “threatening” because of his “verbally abusive” and “rambling” behavior. His mother told the county corrections officer that she was afraid of Zamora due to his mental illness and unpredictable behavior and “begged” the officer to keep him in jail, according to the record.
A jail counselor urged the medical staff to prescribe medications for him. He pleaded guilty to malicious mischief and one drug count and was sentenced to six months. But three days after his release, his mother called 911 because he was aggressive and angry toward his family, the record said. He was jailed again and released the next day on his own recognizance.
A month later, he let himself into a neighbor’s house and demanded to know why the neighbor was there. When Deputy Anne Jackson arrived, she exchanged gunfire with Zamora and was shot six times.
“In the ensuing melee, five of Zamora’s neighbors were also killed and four more injured,” the record said.
The dissenting justices said the majority limited its scope to a jail’s duty when it has physical control of an inmate, but that limitation is inconsistent with the court’s precedent, which has found that once a relationship is established, a duty is established. The case should have gone to trial to decide whether Zamora’s acts of violence were foreseeable, the dissent said.
“It also encourages counties to detain individuals with known mental health issues in jail without making reasonable efforts to provide them with adequate treatment, to transfer such individuals to another county without providing adequate information about their mental health needs, and to release such individuals into the community with more severe mental health problems than they had to begin with,” said Justice Mary I. Yu, writing for the dissent.
“We should not tolerate, much less encourage, such practices, which contribute to a revolving door, conveyor belt system of justice. “
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