A federal court judge in Santa Fe has decided not to order a new trial or to reduce a $22 million civil judgment awarded to former Dona Ana County Detention Center jail inmate Stephen Slevin.
Slevin has maintained that jailers and county prosecutors forgot about him for nearly two years after his arrest on drunk driving charges in 2005.
Slevin’s attorney Matthew Coyte told jurors, in February, he believed his client was kept in administrative segregation for 22 months because of his mental disabilities.
"They threw him in solitary and then ignored him. He disappeared into delirium, and his mental illness was made worse by being isolated from human contact and a lack of medical care," Coyte told reporters after the jury decision.
US District Court Judge Martha Vazquez rejected arguments from county lawyers that the award was excessive.
“The Court finds that the jury’s compensatory damages award was justified by the evidence and cannot be said by reason of its amount to demonstrate bias or passion on the part of the jury in arriving at its verdict,” Vazquez writes in her final order, filed on Friday.
Vazquez referenced other higher court decisions giving jurors exclusive purview of the jury to evaluate credibility and fix damages.
The Tenth Circuit has made clear that, unless the jury has awarded damages ‘so excessive as to shock the judicial conscience and to raise an irresistible inference that passion, prejudice, corruption or other improper cause invaded the trial, the jury’s determination of the damages is considered inviolate.’
Although they admitted the jury’s findings were proper, attorneys for the defendants wanted Vazquez to lower the $15 million in compensatory damages to $2 million. They also argued the jury award must be excessive because Slevin’s own attorney originally asked jurors for only $6 million.
But, Vazquez decided judges should “only rarely and in extraordinary circumstances” fix a jury award to compensate a plaintiff for pain and suffering.
“This is especially true where, as here, the jury found that the conditions of Plaintiff’s confinement violated his constitutional rights,” Vazquez writes.
As the First Circuit has explained, “dollars are at best a rough and awkward proxy for time spent in the throes of wrongful incarceration.
Slevin was released from jail in 2008, and all charges against him were dropped. Out of jail, but still disabled, Slevin sued the county and jailers contending his rights of due process were violated because he was never given a hearing before being placed in solitary confinement.
Vazquez wrote that the defendants failed to raise any constitutional challenge to the punitive damages.
She also agreed with other court rulings that there “is more than a mere possibility that the punitive damage awards in this case were properly intended to punish what has occurred and to deter its repetition.”
Coyte told SFR he hopes the court victory will send a message that inmates, especially those with mental or physical issues, deserve more humane treatment.
But Coyte expects the county to continue litigating the judgment. Still, he tells SFR he hopes they’ll change their attitude about the case:
Instead of accusing the judge or the jury of being overcome by prejudice as they have done in their post trial motions, they should stop and take a look at their own behavior. In the 10 months since the $22 million verdict very little has changed in the approach of those in charge of the jail. There has been an inmate death, and what has been described as a riot in one of the pods. There have also been reports of rubber bullets being used to control the behavior of pre-trial detainees.
Coyte believe those are the signs of an “out of control, mismanaged facility.”
Slevin, who said he never sued for the money but to make a statement about his conditions behind bars, continues to suffer symptoms associated with PTSD and is fighting lung cancer. Read Judge Vazquez’ ruling below.
Dona Ana County's insurance is capped at $5 million per incident. And a portion of that money is being used to pay attorneys to defend commissioners and jail staff. Taxpayers could be on the hook for the remainder.