Vol. 26 No. 6- Sheriff May Be Personally Liable If He Knows Of Violations And Doesn’t Stop Them


To:                 All Police Chiefs and Sheriffs

From:             Martin J. Mayer, Esq.


February 22, 2011

On February 11, 2011, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held, in the case of Starr v. Baca, 2011 DAR 2378, that a supervisor, including the sheriff, can be held personally liable for damages if it can be shown that he or she was deliberately indifferent to the rights of inmates under his or her control.

The Court of Appeals overruled the actions of the trial court in dismissing the complaint against Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca and remanded the case for further proceedings.  The Ninth Circuit stated that the plaintiff “had sufficiently alleged a supervisory liability claim of deliberate indifference against Sheriff Baca.”

Starr’s complaint alleges that when he was in custody in the Los Angeles County Jail, a group of inmates gathered at his cell door and threatened to inflict physical harm on him. He yelled for the deputies guarding the jail to come to his aid. Instead of protecting him, a deputy opened Starr’s cell gate in order to allow the group of inmates to enter. The inmates entered the cell and repeatedly stabbed Starr and his cellmate with knife-like objects. They stabbed Starr twenty-three times while Starr screamed for help and protection.


To be held liable, “the supervisor need not be directly and personally involved in the same way as are the individual officers who are on the scene inflicting constitutional injury.  Rather, the supervisor’s participation could include his own culpable action or inaction in the training, supervision or control of his subordinates, his acquiescence in the constitutional deprivations of which the complaint is made, or conduct that shows a reckless or callous indifference to the rights of others.”

Plaintiff alleged that Sheriff Baca “receives weekly reports from his subordinates responsible for reporting deaths and injuries in the jails, and receives ongoing reports of his Special Counsel and Office of Independent Review.”  It was further alleged that Sheriff Baca “was given notice, in several reports, of systematic problems in the county jails under his supervision that have resulted in . . . deaths or injuries.”

The plaintiff also claimed that, despite being placed on notice, the Sheriff “did not take action to protect inmates under his care despite the dangers, created by the actions of his subordinates, of which he had been made aware.”


The Constitution imposes a duty of care upon the government, and its officials, for those it holds in custody. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits conditions of confinement which amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

The Court stated that, “a showing that a supervisor acted, or failed to act, in a manner that was deliberately indifferent to an inmate’s Eighth Amendment rights is sufficient to demonstrate the involvement – and the liability – of that supervisor.”

Under those circumstances, the Court held, “the supervisor is being held liable for his or her own culpable action or inaction, not held vicariously liable for the culpable action or inaction of his or her subordinates.”

Furthermore, “under California law, [t]he sheriff is required by statute to take charge of and keep the county jail and the prisoners in it, and is answerable for the prisoner’s safekeeping.” (See Penal Code sec. 4006 and Gov. Code sec. 26605 and 26610.)


This case can impact upon any levels of government, if they are in control of facilities which house prisoners.  Once the government has taken a person into custody, the constitutional burden applies to the head of that agency, as well as to his or her subordinates, to insure the safety of that prisoner.

As such, this case should not be viewed as applying only to county sheriffs but, rather, it applies to the supervisors and managers who have inmates under their control, whether in cities, counties, or the state.

Virtually all cities have, at the very least, short term “lock ups” which house prisoners; some cities have Type I jails which hold inmates on a long term basis, including sentenced prisoners; virtually all counties have jails under the control of the sheriff; three California counties have Departments of Corrections created by Boards of Supervisors; and some jurisdictions contract with operators of private jails or prisons.

Each and every one of these governmental agencies, and those who are in charge of the institutions, are subject to the same constitutional obligations referred to in the instant case. Therefore, it is imperative that the heads of those agencies insure that proper training and supervision be in place to reduce the potential for these types of problems.

Additionally, when supervisors and/or managers are informed that there are constitutional deprivations occurring in the institutions over which they have control, swift and immediate corrective action must be taken in order to eliminate or, at the very least, reduce potential personal liability.

It is of the utmost importance that each agency receive advice and guidance from their respective legal advisors to insure they are in compliance with current laws and regulations.

As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at 714) 446 – 1400 or via e-mail at mjm@jones-mayer.com.

Information on www.jones-mayer.com is for general use and is not legal advice.  The mailing of this Client Alert Memorandum is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute an attorney-client relationship