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Posted on Thu. Mar. 13, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

COLUMN

Who says crime doesn't pay?

Legal oversight could cost county taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars

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When a lawsuit is filed on behalf of jail inmates claiming to have suffered “loss of liberty, emotional distress and humiliation,” it belies the adage that crime doesn't pay.

When the lawsuit could have and probably should have been avoided, it indicates somebody wasn't paying attention.

And when a settlement that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars isn't covered by insurance, it means taxpayers will be on the hook, deserve answers – and maybe even an apology.

And that pretty much sums up a potential resolution to a federal lawsuit filed in early 2010 by Fort Wayne attorney Chris Myers on behalf of LeTasha Myett, who had been arrested on Sept. 18, 2009, and kept in the Allen County Jail until her initial hearing three days later – one day longer than the 48-hour limit established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991.

A settlement conference before U.S. District Court Magistrate Roger Cosby failed to settle anything, so Allen County Council held a closed-door session last month (legal under state law) to discuss a possible settlement. An offer various county officials place in the hundreds of thousands of dollars was made this week, and a potentially even more costly trial seems likely if a deal cannot be reached.

“It's in the hands of the attorneys, and they're doing the best they can to get it resolved,” said County Commissioner Nelson Peters, who declined to discuss the case.

Myers has filed similar claims against other counties, including Whitley and LaGrange, and officials in both counties say settlements are in the works. But unlike Allen, taxpayers in those counties will be protected by insurance.

LaGrange County Sheriff Terry Martin attributed hearing delays to that county's prosecutor, but said the settlement would be within the county's $1 million insurance liability cap. “We've got (the problem) covered now,” he said.

Whitley is also covered up to about $1 million and must pay only a $25,000 deductible, according to Commissioner George Schrumpf. “We're very fortunate. We can absorb it,” he said.

With an annual liability fund of about $300,000 in its budget and a rainy day fund that contains about $13 million, Allen County can absorb the expense, too. But that's hardly the point.

Some county officials quietly express frustration that Allen Superior Court did not begin to hold hearings on the weekends – thereby complying with the Supreme Court's guidelines – until after Myers had filed his suit. And, unlike the sheriff and commissioners, judges and prosecutors are immune from lawsuits even though, as attorneys, they should have been especially aware of the 48-hour requirement.

Allen County's ultimate liability is undetermined. But Myers' suits, which eventually achieved class-action status, include about 230 former inmates in Whitley County – and 962 in Allen County.

It could be questioned as to why Allen County's insurance will not cover the settlement. It could also be suggested that Myers, in the eyes of officials in various counties, is notorious for filing – and settling -- lawsuits of varying legal legitimacy (he did not return a call seeking comment).

But it must also be conceded that the law is the law, and however ludicrous the claim (would Myett and the others really have been less "humiliated" by spending “only” 48 hours in jail?), the fact remains that 19 years passed between the time of the Supreme Court's decision and the time Allen County's legal officials established a weekend court – and only then in response to Myers' lawsuit.

The high court did not specify how counties should meet its 48-hour mandate (Whitley now offers video conferences with on-call judges when necessary, Schrumpf said), but there are numerous officials who were aware or should have been aware of the court's decision and failed to respond into the proverbial horse had left the barn.

As a result, the only people who stand to gain are the lawyers and, ironically, people suspected of breaking the law. It will be left to taxpayers to clean up the mess left behind.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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