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KCSO offers payment to sexual assault victims to avoid lawsuits

Kern County sheriff's deputy Gabriel Lopez was convicted of sexually assaulting women in Tehachapi, Calif. (Steve Mills, KBAK/KBFX)

For a number of years, the Kern County Sheriff's Office has been paying off women who were sexually assaulted by deputies.

In return, victims waived their right to file a lawsuit. Critics of this practice claim it is unethical and cheats crime victims out of what is rightfully theirs.

"I think it's pretty scary and intimidating situation," said Bakersfield attorney David Cohn, who represents some of the victims. "No. 1, you're dealing with victims who are under a great deal of emotional distress having been sexually assaulted by a sheriff's deputy."

This method of paying sexual assault victims came to light as a result of a series of reports done by The Guardian newspaper, which focused on police shootings and practices in Kern County.

In 2009, Kern County sheriff's detention deputy Anthony Lavis sexually assaulted a female inmate at Lerdo Jail. Shortly after that, sheriff's officials directly offered the woman $1,500 as a settlement if she waived her right to sue.

The woman accepted the offer, which the county later retracted.

In 2013, Deputy Gabriel Lopez sexually assaulted at least two and possibly a third woman in Tehachapi. Again, sheriff's officials went directly to the victims' homes with unsolicited offers of a cash settlement and with no lawyers present to represent the victims. One of the victims accepted a $5,000 settlement, while the two others refused to sign any waiver.

"They're in there in essence to pressure you into a quick settlement with the sheriff's department, " said Cohn.

County officials defend the "sign and release" practice.

"There's nothing wrong with it as long as the arrangement is voluntary and it's deliberate and it's knowing. In other words, it's an informed release of their rights," said Assistant Kern County Counsel Mark Nations. "Much like insurance companies do, we will approach people who have perhaps have the potential for a claim against the county and we will attempt to resolve that with them."

Nations noted that federal courts have found the practice to be legal and ethical and that victims are free to reject an offer.

"They are told that if they want to consult a lawyer they are free to do so," said the assistant county counsel.

In the case of the woman sexually assaulted at Lerdo Jail, she consulted attorney Cohn after initially agreeing to the $1,500 settlement offer. Cohn challenged the validity of the settlement, arguing that his client "had no idea" that she was waiving her right to sue the sheriff's office.

The county apparently had second thoughts.

"We realized that there was a risk that a court might not uphold the release," said Nations. "And so we opted to settle the case."

For how much?

"For $300,000," said Nations.

The Guardian report states that other victims settled for as little as $200. Nations said that so far a total of three victims of sexual assault by deputies have accepted the cash settlements.

Lavis and Lopez were both convicted of sexual assault and are serving time in prison.

Nations said the county will continue the practice on a case-by-case basis.

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