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Drunks who get beaten up while sleeping it off in a jail’s drunk tank aren’t likely to get to sue for damages any longer. During arguments Wednesday, the California Supreme Court seemed uneasy about the prospect of paring back cities’ and counties’ immunity from suits filed by prisoners. In another case, involving the murders of three women, the court seemed torn about how far a program designed to find crime witnesses can go in promising anonymity to participants. The justices weren’t thrilled about the possibility of perpetrators profiting from their own misdeeds by providing crime-site details, but they were equally concerned about program operators reneging on their vows to keep callers’ identities secret. In the jail case, Craig Teter sued Newport Beach after he was severely beaten by a jailmate in 1997 while sobering up in the city’s drunk tank. Jurors eventually awarded Teter nearly $173,000. Newport Beach, backed by a slew of amici curiae, argued that Government Code � � 844.6 and 820.2 provide immunity from suit for any injury to, or caused by, a prisoner. But Orange County Superior Court Judge John Watson ruled that Teter wasn’t officially a “prisoner” because jailers had decided to release Teter without charges before the attack occurred. In addition, the judge held that Teter was a “civil detainee” because he was in jail for violating Penal Code � 647(f) — public drunkenness — and was being held in custody for his and the public’s safety. Part of Wednesday’s high court discussion revolved around defense lawyer Jean Ballantine’s argument that the city couldn’t be immune anyway, because state law requires officers to hold public drunks in a treatment facility rather than a jail. Instead, Teter was placed in a jail cell with a door open to a violent prisoner. Some of the justices raised concerns about cities avoiding liability altogether by charging public drunkenness upfront whenever anyone is booked, rather than deciding later whether to press charges as is the common practice. Justice Carlos Moreno also raised the specter of cities and counties doing away with early release programs for drunks or not building separate detox facilities for fear of liability. Ballantine argued that detox treatment facilities are mandated by the state Legislature. But, Justice Janice Rogers Brown noted, the law never uses the word “mandate” and seems to leave such facilities as an option. “So,” she said, “maybe there’s a reason for leaving it as an option.” In the murder case, Robert Maury faces the death penalty for the 1985-87 murders of Averill Weeden, Dawn Berryhill and Belinda Jo Stark in Shasta County. At argument Wednesday, Maury’s lawyer, Joseph Chabot of San Francisco, raised the novel argument that a Shasta County program called Secret Witness had violated Maury’s Fifth Amendment rights by inducing him to provide information about the murders with the promise of anonymity. The program operates by having eyewitnesses call in and provide information about crimes, in exchange for anonymity and a cash reward. But Chabot’s argument that Maury, who called in information about his own murders, deserved anonymity bothered several justices. “Under your theory,” Justice Marvin Baxter said, “the perpetrator can call, identify himself, provide relevant information and collect the reward” yet not have the call used against him. That’s the promise made by the program, Chabot said. “You don’t see a problem giving money to the person who committed the murder?” Justice Ming Chin asked. “Do you not see anything wrong here?” “The promise of anonymity is unequivocal,” Chabot argued. “It has to be unequivocal. Otherwise, programs like this won’t work. What has to be suppressed is the caller’s identity.” While anonymity for Maury didn’t get much sympathy from the panel, there were questions about how far the program could go in making promises and later reneging. What about accessories after the fact, the justices asked. Sacramento Deputy Attorney General Stanley Cross said there would be no reason to pursue people of that nature. “That would be contrary to the program’s interests,” he said. Chief Justice Ronald George said Cross seemed to draw a line between perpetrators and accessories to crimes. “But,” George said, “I don’t think the line is as clear as you believe.” In summing up, Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar said that the bench’s concern is, “Where would we draw the line about whose anonymity could be violated and whose could not?” Decisions in Teter v. City of Newport Beach, S106553, and People v. Maury, S012852, are expected within 90 days.

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