May 11, 2020
DENVER – Today, a federal judge issued a 39-page ruling holding that the U.S. Constitution requires that Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams provide special protections to medically vulnerable people incarcerated in the Weld County Jail. Judge Phillip A. Brimmer’s order was issued after a full-day evidentiary hearing on April 30 in a class action lawsuit filed by a team of ACLU and civil right attorneys seeking an order to compel Sheriff Reams to comply with public health guidelines — including physical distancing — for all high-risk people being held at the jail. By failing to identify and provide heightened protections for medically vulnerable people, the lawsuit alleged, Sheriff Reams was violating their constitutional rights. Judge Brimmer agreed, holding: “The record indicates that defendant has failed to take adequate measures to protect members of the plaintiff class from COVID-19 given that they face a heightened risk of serious illness or death from the virus. Accordingly, plaintiffs’ conditions of confinement violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, and plaintiffs are entitled to a limited preliminary injunction to ameliorate those conditions.”
The court ordered that the Weld County Jail must identify incarcerated people who are medically vulnerable, socially distance them and provide them with single cells to the greatest extent possible, monitor them for signs of illness, adequately clean communal spaces used by medically vulnerable inmates, and ensure that medically vulnerable inmates have access to face masks.
“Weld County's foot-dragging through March led to its jail being the first one in Colorado to have an outbreak,” said Dan. Williams, of Hutchinson, Black and Cook, who led the ACLU’s portion of the litigation team. “Weld County’s lawyer argued that the judge should excuse the Sheriff’s failure to take COVID-19 more seriously because there had ‘only been one death.’ Today's order makes clear that when it comes to COVID-19, half measures don't cut it. Jails need to take aggressive measures to keep medically vulnerable people safe.”
This ruling has statewide implications. ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein said, “This ruling should serve as a warning to sheriffs around the state: the Constitution requires that you take extraordinary measures to protect the persons in your jails who are especially medically vulnerable to COVID-19. Sheriffs must identify the high-risk persons in their jail; they must ensure physical distancing and house vulnerable people in single cells as much as possible. To meet these obligations, we urge sheriffs to work closely with judges, district attorneys and public defenders to keep jail populations down and avoid incarceration altogether for medically vulnerable people who do not pose a public safety risk.”
The plaintiffs’ legal team includes ACLU staff attorneys, Killmer Lane and Newman, LLP, David Maxted of Maxted Law LLC, Jamie Hubbard, of Stimson Stancil LaBranche Hubbard LLC, and ACLU Cooperating Attorneys Dan Williams and Lauren Groth.
For a list of resources and recent actions by ACLU of Colorado and others to stop the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons go to: https://aclu-co.org/doingmypartco/
The ACLU of Colorado is the state’s oldest civil rights organization, protecting and defending the civil rights of all Coloradans through litigation, education and advocacy.