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Criminals that the state wants to civilly confine as sexually violent predators must be treated better than criminal inmates while they are kept at county jails, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Monday. A unanimous panel decided on behalf of Oscar Jones, who had filed a pro per federal civil rights lawsuit against Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas. The decision did not get into the merits of Jones’ complaints; that will be up to the district court on remand. However, the Ninth Circuit panel tried to define the conditions under which sexually violent predators can be detained. Under California law, counties can try to hold convicted sex offenders for up to two years after they have finished their prison sentences. Just before the prison term is up, prosecutors can begin a civil process to have the defendant sent to a state hospital. While awaiting his hospital hearing, Jones was kept in the general population at Sacramento County Jail and, later, in a type of administrative segregation. The Ninth Circuit panel said the jail conditions, if accurately described by Jones, were “punitive” and not appropriate. “At a bare minimum, then, an individual detained under civil process — like an individual accused but not convicted of a crime — cannot be subjected to conditions that ‘amount to punishment,’” wrote Senior Judge Betty Fletcher. She was joined by Judge Sidney Thomas and Senior Judge John Noonan. Jones was represented by Darrell Fruth of Farella Braun & Martel, who was appointed to the case through the Ninth Circuit’s pro bono program. “I think the court appropriately decided that if you’re not accused of a crime, you shouldn’t be treated like a criminal,” Fruth said. But the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department disagreed with Fruth’s reading of the opinion. Lt. Scott Jones pointed out that, in order to decide the summary judgment motion under appeal, the court had to assume the defendant was telling the truth about the way he was treated. The sheriff disputes Jones’ account of jail conditions, and Lt. Jones said the district court will have to decide whether conditions were inappropriate. Since the case was filed, the state passed a law saying administrative segregation was the proper place to house those facing trial as sexually violent predators, Lt. Jones said. The sheriff was represented by David Melton of Sacramento’s Porter, Scott, Weiberg & Delehant. While at the jail, defendant Jones alleges he was subject to “numerous” body cavity searches, including some in the presence of female deputies, denied full use of the law library and stripped of all recreational privileges. He also claims he was denied access to religious services and could not leave his cell as often as other prisoners. He was kept in the jail from December 1997 until January 2000 when, after a jury trial, he was committed to Atascadero State Hospital. How to deal with sexually violent predators has become a contentious issue between law enforcement and the defense bar throughout California. While much of the attention has focused on if and where to release prisoners, a quieter battle is raging over the mechanics of applying California’s Sexually Violent Predator law, which authorizes the civil commitment. Santa Clara County Deputy Public Defender Brian Matthews, who represented Brian DeVries and other defendants at their predator hearings, said Monday’s opinion is more reason for counties to change their ways. “The jails have a problem. They’re probably going to have to create another place to house these guys,” Matthews said. Jones filed the lawsuit on his own. He was tossed out of court by former Eastern District Chief Judge William Shubb on a summary judgment motion filed by the sheriff. In Monday’s opinion, the Ninth Circuit panel criticized the handling of deadlines and discovery matters by Shubb and Magistrate Judge John Moulds, who had ruled against Jones. The judges should have cut the defendant some slack because of his pro per status and his restricted law-library and mail privileges, both in jail and at Atascadero, according to the opinion. The district court also applied the wrong amendment to Jones’ claims, the panel said. “Though it purported to analyze Jones’ conditions of confinement claim under the Fourteenth Amendment, the district court actually applied the standards that govern a claim of cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment,” according to the opinion. The case is Jones v. Blanas, 04 C.D.O.S. 11294.

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