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Brooklyn detainees may sue NYC over 'degrading' conditions: U.S. court

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City must face a lawsuit claiming it unconstitutionally subjected pretrial detainees at Brooklyn Central Booking to "degrading" conditions such as overcrowded and filthy cells, rotten food and undrinkable water, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.

By a 3-0 vote, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan rejected a Brooklyn federal judge's finding that the city and senior police officials could not be liable for damages because the plaintiff detainees were held for less than one day, and none suffered serious injury or sickness.

"Ultimately, the defendants' theory appears to be that state officials are free to set a system in place whereby they can subject pretrial detainees awaiting arraignment to absolutely atrocious conditions for twenty-four hour periods (and perhaps more) without violating the Constitution so long as nothing actually catastrophic happens during those periods," Judge John Koeltl wrote for the appeals court. "That is not the law."

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The civil case had been brought on behalf of 20 pretrial detainees arrested between July 2011 and July 2013 and held at Brooklyn Central Booking, which has since been relocated.

Nick Paolucci, a New York City Law Department spokesman, said in a statement the trial court "remains free to find for the city after a fuller presentation of the evidence."

New York City is regularly sued by prisoners, inmates and detainees over their confinement.

It agreed in September to pay $5.75 million to settle a lawsuit over the 2013 death of a mentally ill inmate found naked and covered in feces after being locked for six days in his Rikers Island cell.

The Brooklyn detainees said the city violated their due process rights by stuffing them "like a can of sardines" into crowded, infested, and garbage- and urine-caked cells with broken toilets and a lack of toilet paper, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste.

They also said they were served inedible food and foul water, subjected to extreme heat and cold, deprived of sleep, and left to fend for themselves when other detainees became violent.

"We painted a picture of the facility being alarming and appalling," Richard Cardinale, a lawyer for the detainees, said in a phone interview. "Today we feel like our position has been vindicated, and we look forward to a trial."

Koeltl said the detainees could try to show that police officials acted with deliberate indifference, including by recklessly ignoring risks to their health and safety.

Tuesday's decision returned the case to U.S. District Judge William Kuntz in Brooklyn. Koeltl normally sits on the federal district court in Manhattan.

The case is Darnell et al v. Pineiro et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 15-2870.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)