Utah jails want Supreme Court ruling in fight with ACLU over coronavirus response

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Jail on Friday, March 20, 2020.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah is ready to drop its lawsuit against Salt Lake County, which originally claimed the county didn’t do what it should to stop the coronavirus from entering the jail.

That’s not good enough for county leaders.

Instead, they want the lawsuit to go forward and they want a written ruling from the Utah Supreme Court stating that the ACLU was wrong and that they were right.

They argued that the ACLU and others did not do any investigation of what the jails were actually doing before filing their lawsuit in early April, which they say “have sown the seeds of a false narrative.” A motion to dismiss now, they argued, is “a misguided attempt to avoid review on the record.”

“This lawsuit caused unnecessary alarm for first responders who work in the jail, incarcerated individuals, family members of all involved, and the community as a whole,” said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill in a statement Monday. “The ACLU wasted county time and taxpayer dollars during a crisis by deciding to sue first and ask questions later.”

Frank Mylar, an attorney for 21 of Utah’s counties that are also being sued, similarly asked that they remain in the lawsuit despite the ACLU’s motion to dismiss them as defendants. He says time and money went into fighting the case, and the counties want a written decision from the high court. They also want the Utah Supreme Court to weigh in on costs and fees.

The ACLU jointly filed the original petition on April 1 with the Utah Disability Law Center and the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, asking the state Supreme Court to step in and order officials to reduce the jail population and do more to keep the incarcerated population safe from COVID-19.

But last week, the groups asked that the lawsuit be dismissed against Salt Lake County and 21 other counties, saying they believe local governments were taking adequate measures.

The three groups said last week that they didn’t know what measures were being taken before filing their lawsuit — despite their efforts to request that information from jailers across the state prior to litigation. Those efforts became more clear after counties filed their responses in court.

But Salt Lake County’s lawyers say it was the lawsuit that caused them to clamp down on information, which they said was a “free flow” previously.

“Having generated a media firestorm and caused widespread public concern about the criminal justice system in Salt Lake County, based on little more than hyperbole and demonstrably false assumptions, [the] organizations’ eleventh-hour attempt to thwart this court’s review of the facts ... should not be tolerated,” wrote Bridget Romano, an attorney for the county.

State and local officials responded to the ACLU-backed lawsuit in late April, saying they were proud of their response to the pandemic and they shouldn’t be forced to release more inmates — noting the numbers of people incarcerated are already at historic lows.

“The counties should be lauded, not sued, for their heroic actions,” wrote Mylar.

So far, the Salt Lake County jail is the only one in Utah that has had inmates test positive for the virus. Attorneys for the county wrote in its response in April that its facility was free of COVID-19 but did have 15 cases involving current or former inmates. COVID-19 has returned to the jail since then, and two inmates who are currently incarcerated have tested positive. Twenty-eight were being quarantined as of last Tuesday.

The ACLU-led coalition is continuing to sue state officials over its prison system. ACLU Legal Director John Mejia wrote in court papers filed last week that while prison officials have undertaken “meaningful, commendable work” in response to the pandemic, the group doesn’t believe the measures go far enough.

He said that the process for prisoners to make complaints or file grievances about jail conditions is too burdensome and slow for how fast the virus can spread, and added the compassionate release process is also sluggish and difficult for inmates to work through if they don’t have money to hire an attorney.

He further argued that the number of people at the prison is still far too high, and it’s impossible for inmates to space out and stay 6 feet from one another.

As of Monday, Utah prison officials have tested 64 inmates for the coronavirus — 54 have tested negative, and 10 tests are still pending.