Judge Demands Info From Officials In Miami Jail Virus Suit

By Nathan Hale
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Law360 (April 13, 2020, 10:38 PM EDT) -- A Florida federal judge said Monday that the criminal justice system must face new realities posed by the COVID-19 pandemic as she pressed Miami-Dade County for information she said will be essential in considering a proposed class action alleging inmates' constitutional rights are being violated by inadequate jail conditions.

U.S. District Judge Kathleen M. Williams, who has already issued a temporary restraining order requiring the county to take certain steps at its Metro West Detention Center, stressed during a pair of telephonic hearings that she had made no final findings but said that reducing the population of the county's jails may be the most important step for avoiding an outbreak within their walls and in prison guards' communities.

To reach an informed decision, the Miami-based judge said she needs competent evidence and agreed with the plaintiffs' position that a review of the conditions at Metro West is needed. She also ordered the county to turn over more information on the facility's inmate population and what processes, if any, are in place for expedited review for possible early release or pretrial house arrest.

"This is a new world, and at every level, federal and state, the actors in the criminal justice system are being tasked with adjusting their perspective," Judge Williams said, noting that while driving without a license and violating house arrest are clearly crimes, the best place for someone facing such charges but who is medically vulnerable to COVID-19 might not be jail.

"And if people aren't looking at this problem with that perspective, then there are questions if there is deliberate indifference, if the appropriate remedies are being exhausted," she said. "So I need info about the people who have been identified as part of the vulnerable cohort."

County officials said they had already provided similar information to the state attorney's office, which they said has the authority to release prisoners and has already released some through a review process with the public defender's office. Judge Williams said that information is helpful but said it left her questioning whether it pertains to inmates who are not represented by public defenders and how a stated limit to inmates with bonds of $7,500 or less was chosen.

After the county and counsel for the seven named plaintiffs were unable to reach agreement Monday on an individual to inspect Metro West and the scope of the examination, Judge Williams said during a follow-up hearing Monday afternoon that she would issue an order based on proposed orders from the two sides.

County attorneys said they thought an expert on jails would be more appropriate than a doctor or other medical expert and sought to limit the review to the areas where the seven plaintiffs are housed, but the judge, who asked the parties to each submit two candidates, said any institution would likely benefit from a doctor's medical expertise. She also said she had not envisioned an inspection "where someone would go everywhere," but she said it was relevant for her to see not only where the plaintiffs are held, but also an average jail cell, areas quarantined inmates are held and medical facilities, among other spaces.

After some discussion, and the court's agreement that it could proceed without full criminal histories at this point, the county said it could provide data by April 15 on the ages, charges and medical diagnoses of approximately 700 inmates, out of a total population of more than 1,800, whom the county has said are vulnerable to Covid-19.

Judge Williams said she was hoping to be able to winnow down the number of prisoners who might be considered for early release or pretrial house arrest, noting that it would be doubtful that someone charged with murder or rape would be considered for release compared to someone who drove without a license.

The judge also settled on a comprise between the parties' positions by ordering the county to provide updates every three days on how many have been tested for COVID-19, have tested positive, are in quarantine and are showing symptoms of the disease.

In setting briefing deadlines and an April 27 hearing on the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction, Judge Williams pointedly rejected their request to conduct a deposition or further discovery.

"I cannot imagine who can give you information in a deposition context more than what we are talking about gathering today," she said, although she also made clear that the county must make sure that plaintiffs' counsel have access to their clients.

In her April 7 temporary restraining order, Judge Williams granted several of the plaintiffs' requests, including ordering the county to make sure to effectively communicate COVID-19 information to all Metro West inmates; implement social distancing recommendations as much as possible; provide inmates with adequate individual supplies of soap, toilet paper and other hygiene items; and require staff to wear personal protective equipment.

The complaint said at least 15 county jail employees had reportedly tested positive and that about 60 Metro West inmates were "quarantined" as a group "due to someone testing positive," as of April 5. It claimed the county has violated all inmates' rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments through deliberate indifference by "needlessly" exposing them to COVID-19 and seeks the release of a medically vulnerable subclass pursuant to a writ of habeas corpus.

The inmates are represented by Alexandria Twinem, Katherine Hubbard and Alec Karakatsanis of Civil Rights Corps, Katherine Alena Sanoja and Rodney Quinn Smith II of GST LLP, Meena Jagannath of Community Justice Project Inc., Thomas B. Harvey and Tiffany Yang of Advancement Project and Lida Rodriguez-Taseff of DLA Piper.

Miami-Dade County is represented by Erica Sunny Shultz Zaron, Bernard Pastor and Ezra Saul Greenberg of the Miami-Dade County Attorney's Office.

The case is Swain et al. v. Junior et al., case number 1:20-cv-21457, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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