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County Gov't Tries To Dodge Liability In Jailhouse Deaths By Intimidating The Journalist Who Exposed Them

To keep itself from being held liable for inmate deaths, San Diego County (CA) has decided to target the journalist who exposed them. Kelly Davis, along with the EFF's Dave Maass, used public records requests and investigative journalism to detail 60 deaths in the county's five jails, which occurred over the course of five years. The death rate in San Diego jails was consistently higher than those of comparably-sized systems. In fact, the death rate was higher than that of the 10 largest jail systems in the country. Documents showed almost a third of those were preventable.

But when a lawsuit was filed by the wife of an inmate who died in a San Diego County jail, the county argued there was no negligence. The presiding judge disagreed, citing Davis and Maass' journalism.

The Marine’s widow is suing the county, claiming the jail system didn’t protect Nesmith from himself despite multiple warning signs. A judge allowed the case to go forward, noting that news coverage could “plausibly” have given the county a heads-up of “a pattern of deliberate indifference” to suicidal inmates.

Ok, if that's the way you want to play this, said the county in its next filing. If these reports should have given us heads up on negligence in county jails, let's see if we can't dispute the accuracy of the reports. The county has asked the judge to force Kelly Davis to turn over everything she has on jail deaths, including documents and interviews that haven't been published.

Randy Dotinga of the Voice of San Diego explains what the county is really trying to do with this discovery demand:

Let’s dig beyond the legalese into what the county is actually saying here:

So you’re suggesting we should have known that we had a big problem with jail suicides because of those “60 Dead Inmates” headlines and done something? Maybe those stories were wrong, and we didn’t need to know about a problem we didn’t actually have! We can’t be bothered to run the numbers ourselves, so we’ll force the reporter to do it for us.

This part is unsaid: This will also suck up hours of depositions and cost everyone a bundle. Luckily, we’re taxpayer-funded! And hey, we’ll learn who squealed to the reporter too. Bonus!

This is an obvious attempt to intimidate a journalist who exposed misconduct and malfeasance. The county has plenty of previous reporting it could dig into, as well as unfettered access to jail records and jail employees. Instead, it's dragging the journalist to court and attempting to unmask sources. The county is trying to bypass First Amendment protections and the state's journalist shield laws to skirt liability in jailhouse deaths.

Fortunately, Davis has pro bono representation pushing back against the county's demands. It appears the county didn't think the journalist would stand up for her rights. So, it's changed its arguments. Instead of bypassing Constitutional protections, the government is hoping to get every damning piece of journalism booted from the ongoing civil rights lawsuit. The new "deal" proposed by the county would be to rescind its demands for sources and source material from Davis if the plaintiff agrees to never bring up Davis' reporting during the lawsuit. One way or another, the county is hoping to bury inconvenient facts. The widow bringing the lawsuit has refused this deal, meaning the reporting is still in play and the demand for Davis to reveal everything she's collected still an ongoing concern.

For now, Davis won't have to turn over anything. As Voice of San Diego reports, the judge has ruled against the county's request. The county may appeals this order, but for now, Davis won't have to produce documents or testify.

As Dotinga points out, this is nothing more than intimidation from government reps who think they can push their constituents around.

We’ve seen several recent cases of overreach by lawyers who work for taxpayers. The city attorney’s office slut-shamed a victim of a predatory cop and held an extensive jail term over the head of a man who protested a bank by writing slogans in chalk on a sidewalk. The district attorney’s office, meanwhile, targeted a rapper over his lyrics and tried to send a group of men to jail for having links to a gang involved in a fatal shooting.

This is how San Diego is handling problems with its law enforcement officers. It's punishing citizens for speaking up, protesting, engaging in journalism, or being the victims of sexual assault by people in positions of power. Every single aspect of this is shameful, but having a sense of shame means admitting the county has a problem (well, several of them). County reps aren't paid to admit fault. But they shouldn't be collecting paychecks for violating the US Constitution and state law, either.

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