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Federal court orders class action status in ACLU case on behalf of prisoners in Garfield County Jail

CONTACT: Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director, 303.777.5482 x114

Federal district court judge Wiley Y. Daniel issued a 42-page opinion Thursday that certifies, as a class action, an ACLU lawsuit filed in 2006 on behalf of prisoners in the Garfield County Jail in Glenwood Springs.  

The motion for class certification had been waiting for decision since October, 2006, but a ruling was delayed because of the long illness of Judge Phillip S. Figa, to whom the case had originally been assigned.  After Judge Figa passed away in December, 2007, the case was re-assigned to Judge Daniel.

“The attorneys for the plaintiffs are very pleased with Judge Daniel’s decision,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director.  “The court now recognizes officially that this case will proceed on behalf of all current and future prisoners in the jail, not just on behalf of the four individual plaintiffs who originally came forward in 2006.”

The lawsuit challenges the jail’s use-of-force practices, including the use of restraint chairs, tasers, electroshock belts, pepperball guns, and pepper spray.   The lawsuit also asserts that the jail fails to provide legally-required mental health care by qualified mental health professionals.

The ACLU also contends that the jail imposes severe punishment for alleged violations of jail disciplinary rules, without the minimal due process protections required by court decisions.  According to the order, those claims will proceed on behalf of a class comprised of "all persons who, now or at any time in the future, are or will be prisoners in the custody of the Garfield County Sheriff’s Department.”

“The lawsuit asks for forward-looking changes in policies and practices,” Silverstein said.  “It does not ask for monetary damages for the plaintiffs or for individual class members.  Class certification is important because the original plaintiffs are no longer in the jail, and case law says that their individual claims for policy changes are now moot.  The claims of the class of current and future prisoners, however, are ongoing.  Now that the court has certified a class, the lawsuit can proceed to determine whether the class is entitled to the kind of relief requested in this case, which the courts call injunctive or declaratory relief.”

The court denied class certification on one of the lawsuit’s six claims, which alleged that a jail policy interferes with prisoners’ right to meet with attorneys in a confidential setting.   Pursuant to that policy, the lawsuit alleges, prisoners are not told when an attorney arrives for a meeting.  Instead, the prisoner is asked an open-ended question, “Who is your attorney?”  If prisoners answer with the name of their criminal defense attorney instead of the ACLU, the visit is denied.  The court ruled that the ACLU had not demonstrated that the challenged practice is widespread enough to be litigated on a class-wide basis.

“The lawsuit asserts the jail’s policy on attorney visits was invented for the purpose of thwarting the ACLU’s efforts to meet with prisoners,” Silverstein said.  “Now that this case is certified as a class action, I expect that Sheriff Vallario will fully accommodate any future requests to meet with jail prisoners in a confidential setting.  If ACLU lawyers encounter any further problems meeting with prisoners, we’ll be back before Judge Daniel.” 

In addition to Silverstein, lawyers handling the litigation include Greg Whitehair, Taggart Hansen, Marisa Hudson-Arney, Reid Allred, and Autum White of Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher, and ACLU staff attorney Taylor Pendergrass.

About the ACLU of Colorado
The ACLU is a nationwide, non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to defending and preserving the principles of the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy and public education.  The ACLU Foundation of Colorado works to protect the rights of all Coloradans. 

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