Ruling revives Latino lawsuits

Treatment of four county 'islands' at center of dispute

October 8, 2009 

At right, a Stanislaus County Sheriff's Deputy drives down Figaro Avenue between islands of county and city neighborhoods in Modesto Thursday. (Adrian Mendoza / The Modesto Bee)

At right, a Stanislaus County Sheriff's Deputy drives down Figaro Avenue between islands of county and city neighborhoods in Modesto Thursday. (Adrian Mendoza / The Modesto Bee)

(ADRIAN MENDOZA / THE MODESTO BEE)

Stanislaus County must defend at trial its slow law enforcement response times in Latino neighborhoods, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled Thursday, reversing an earlier decision.

Whether the county discriminates against Latinos by making it harder for them to annex into Modesto also should be tried in court, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided.

Additionally, the trio of justices reinstated lawsuits against the county based on federal fair housing law, said Latino neighborhoods' claims under state law may go forward and canceled an earlier order that La- tino plaintiffs pay $36,400 of the county's court costs.

The ruling reverses nearly all points of the county's August 2007 victory, when a federal appeals justice in Fresno dismissed a majority of claims initially brought in 2004. However, Thursday's ruling also found that the county showed no bias by failing to upgrade sewers and build storm drains and sidewalks in the predominantly Latino tracts.

"We believe this is vindication of our position in almost all respects," said San Francisco attorney Brian Bros- nahan. "We're delighted that our clients will get their day in court and we look forward to trying the case."

But county lawyers claimed partial victory, saying the infrastructure ruling is the "largest and most pronounced" part of Thursday's decision.

Plaintiffs, represented by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, sued under the name Committee Concerning Community Improvement. They said the county unfairly treats four heavily Latino, substandard "islands" that were never annexed to Modesto though they're surrounded by the city.

The justices noted that the county has upgraded sewers in only three of 26 unincorporated islands, with a combined population of 76 percent Latino and 80 percent minority, while no island with a white majority has had such luck.

"That was the big part of the claim, where the most effort and tension went," said County Counsel John Doering. "We're disappointed that the other claims have to be dealt with at the trial level again. But with further explanation of the facts, we believe we'll be able to prevail on the other matters as well."

Deputy sheriffs show up later at calls in minority neighborhoods because it takes dispatchers longer to interpret Spanish or Asian languages, said Deputy County Counsel Dean Wright. It's similar to court proceedings, which generally take longer with interpreters, he said.

But the justices noted that 911 personnel took 7.2 minutes on average to dispatch deputies to Latino islands, according to data from a 2½-year period ending in August 2004, compared with 5.5 minutes in predominant- ly white unincorporated islands. And it took 13.4 minutes for deputies to arrive after calls were placed from Latino islands, compared with 12.5 minutes in white islands, the study showed.

"This court cannot agree (with the county) that a difference of one minute can be characterized as not making a meaningful difference when one is waiting for emergency personnel to arrive," the justices wrote, asking the federal court in Fresno to go ahead and try the case.

Also looking at annexation

The Latino neighborhoods also argued that they face little chance of being drawn into the city limit, where they would receive better services, because city and county officials can't agree on how to split taxes generated there.

The agencies years ago agreed on tax-sharing ratios for neighborhoods that were 48 percent Latino based on 2000 Census data, but never reached accords on islands that were 71 percent Latino. The justices found the difference statistically significant and said the numbers suggest "evidence of discriminatory impact," ordering a lower court to review and decide.

Brosnahan said county lawyers are "sugarcoating" Thursday's rulings.

"The appellate court said, 'You're wrong, there is enough evidence' " to go to trial, Brosnahan said. "Obviously, when you thought you had the case won, then you don't have the case won anymore, it's hard to feel good about that."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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