7th Circuit: Marion County sheriff not liable for overdetaining inmate

Although the Marion County Sheriff’s remedy failed to fix a glitch between two different computer systems and caused an inmate to be detained longer than the court had ordered, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the law enforcement agency and the city of Indianapolis were not deliberately indifferent.

Gai Levy filed a lawsuit against the Marion County Sheriff’s department and the Consolidated City of Indianapolis and Marion County, contending the Marion Superior Court ordered his release immediately after his arrest Feb. 29, 2016, but the sheriff unlawfully detained him until March 3, 2016.

Communication between the sheriff’s department and the courts is difficult because the Odyssey system the courts use and the Offender Management System the sheriff uses are not compatible. To overcome this problem, a special data exchange system was developed to transfer information from the courts to the sheriff’s department.

However, the new process still had glitches. Namely, the sheriff was not receiving any notification or update when the courts modified a release order. To address this, the sheriff’s department reached an agreement that the court staff would contact the sheriff’s inmate records staff any time a subsequent order was issued.

Levy argued, in part, the sheriff “instituted and maintained unreasonable policies and practices” that caused him to be held in jail after the court had ordered his release. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana summarized Levy’s argument as challenging two policies or practices. The first was the use of Odyssey and the Offender Management System to transmit release orders and the second was the practice of requiring court staff call the sheriff when a release order had been modified.

In granting summary judgment to the defendants, the Southern Indiana District Court ruled Levy did not provide the necessary evidence to support his claim. Even though the defendants acknowledged Levy was detained longer than he should have been because the courts did not call the sheriff about the updated release order, the district court found Levy needed to produce evidence of other individuals being held longer for the same reasons in order to establish the defendants adopted a policy or practice of deliberate indifference.

The 7th Circuit affirmed in Gai Levy v. Marion County Sheriff, et al., 19-1424.

In particular, the appellate panel pointed out Levy’s detention occurred after the Marion County Sheriff implemented a fix to address the problem caused by updated orders. The 7th Circuit held Levy’s question — whether a prison’s use of a system with significant weaknesses can be considered deliberately indifferent, even after the prison has taken affirmative steps to address those weaknesses — was answered by Armstrong v. Squadrito, 152 F.3d 564 (7th Cir. 1998).

That case challenged a practice at the Allen County Jail where jail staff “took absolutely no action” to ensure individuals arrested on civil warrants were given a court date and not overdetained. However, because the jail had instituted a “backup plan” where detainees could file formal written complaints, the 7th Circuit found the jail officials were not deliberately indifferent because they were trying to prevent individuals from being held longer than necessary.

Likewise, the Marion County Sheriff developed a process and practice to provide notice of modifications in release orders.

“As in Armstrong, these actions ‘show[ed] an awareness on the part of jail officials that a danger exist[ed] and an attempt to avert an injury from danger,’” Judge Joel Flaum wrote for the court. “Consequently, without evidence that the Sheriff’s Office knew or should have known that these safeguards would fail, or failed so often that they would obviously result in over-detentions, we cannot conclude that defendants acted with deliberate indifference to the risk of detainees’ over-detention. Levy’s singular experience does not support a finding to the contrary.”

Separately, a class action lawsuit filed in 2014 and claiming a pattern of  wrongful detention by the Marion County Jail is pending a ruling on summary judgment motions. That case in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana is Michael Driver et al. v. Marion County Sheriff, 1:14-CV-2076.

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