Homeless people. Jail inmates. Mental patients. Those who could be thought of as disenfranchised.
They’re all groups that high-profile Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin has stood up for in lawsuits filed in the Western United States in the last few years.
Today, the man who has made headlines for most of his professional career is at the legal center of an incident in which Lodi police killed a mentally unstable man who they claim had a knife that he wouldn’t put down. Parminder Singh Shergill, a 43-year-old U.S. Army veteran with an engineering degree, was shot and killed by two officers who responded to a disturbance call the morning of Jan. 25.
Merin’s services were sought by Sacramento attorney Amar Shergill, not related to Parminder Shergill, who had met Merin through a civic American-Islamic group. Merin says very few Caucasian attorneys are aware of organizations like these, or care about their members.
“When people hear about me, they think of me in cases like this,” Merin said of how he became involved with the Lodi case.
When he’s not in court or on an overseas trip, Merin works on a quiet downtown Sacramento street a mere block from a park where homeless residents have been known to congregate. On a shelf in the simple conference room of his two-story office in a converted Victorian house sits three framed diplomas: Cornell University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, and his subsequent law degrees from the University of Chicago and New York University.
But it is Philadelphia where Merin hails from, the son of a working class father who was laid off and never rehired. It got Merin thinking about inequality in the U.S.
In 1959 during the Cuban Revolution, one of Merin’s high school teachers asked the big question: What is your place in this world?
The student didn’t have an answer, but he was eager to seek it out.
In college, he was a member of the Students for Democratic Society at a time of political unrest in the United States, from the Vietnam War to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
“I realized you could accomplish more together than separate,” he said, recalling the ideology of his youth.
This belief took him to Brooklyn where, armed with a master’s degree in urban and poverty law, he was assigned to work with Puerto Rican and black families.
“What I learned is these were not poor people who needed our help. These were people. That was a very important thing to learn,” he said. “In my experience, you can work with groups of people to accomplish things, but they do it mostly for themselves.”
Merin then moved across the United States to San Francisco where, he said, he needed to learn to litigate. It was there that he unwittingly took on a prisoner case that would define the kind of attorney he would become — a sort of champion of the underdogs that would cast him into the media spotlight again and again.
Lured by Gov. Jerry Brown
Merin, a member of the California State Bar for more than 40 years, soon received an offer from Gov. Jerry Brown to move to Sacramento and become the first prosecutor for the Fair Political Practices Commission.
“After a year, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t play that political game,” Merin said of his decision in 1974.
By then, he had met the woman who would become his wife. An attorney herself, they set up a law firm with two other attorneys and represented social groups. The largest group of clients they served were California Indian bands who had nothing, Merin said.
Today, many of the Indians up and down the state can credit Merin and his peers with helping them create sovereign nations that cleared the way for legal gaming facilities.
In 2001, Merin separated from his partner, who wanted to continue focusing on what he said has become the business of American Indians.
Merin, instead, wanted to focus on civil cases. Since then, he has tried cases related to labor law and abuse, but his forte seems to be mass arrests, he said.
He has represented students arrested during peaceful rallies and adults at sit-ins at the State Capitol.
He’s currently seeking an anti-gang injunction in Yolo County against officials who anonymously identified people they thought were gang members. The debate, Merin said, is whether those identified can be considered guilty by association with those in gangs.
In San Joaquin County, he worked with farmers near Interstate 5 worried about saltwater intrusion into the San Joaquin Delta.
In Sacramento, Merin successfully changed old rules that allowed anyone arrested to be strip-searched at the city jail and scored his biggest victory — a $15 million settlement from the county.
He won similar settlements at both Sacramento and Contra Costa juvenile halls in 2007 and 2009.
Todd Leras, recently endorsed by Merin for Sacramento County District Attorney, said the lawsuits recognized people were being subjected to strip searches for misdemeanor charges.
“I had colleagues at the District Attorney’s Office arrested for drunk driving ... these were otherwise law-abiding citizens who make mistakes. Subjecting them to potential strip searches seems excessive,” he said.
Merin also sued both Sacramento County and the City of Sacramento in a class action lawsuit in 2007 representing homeless people who had their sole belongings thrown away when they were roused from public sites. He claimed in the lawsuit, filed on behalf of 11 homeless people, that the city and county violated their constitutional rights by confiscating sleeping bags and other possessions.
“These victories allow me to take cases that I’m really interested in without worries for compensation,” Merin said.
In the news
The most recent involves a state of Nevada psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas accused of patient dumping. When a man ended up in Sacramento, Merin not only got wind of the incident, but filed suit against the facility’s operators.
Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital discharged James Flavy Coy Brown via Greyhound bus in February 2013 to Sacramento, Merin said, where he had no connections and no arrangements for treatment or housing waiting for him.
Merin, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, filed the class-action lawsuit against Nevada on behalf of Brown and hundreds of other patients bused out of state by the hospital, contending the practice was a form of “patient dumping” and violated their civil rights. Merin said his research had turned up dozens of former patients with similar stories.
U.S. District Court Judge James C. Mahan dismissed the civil lawsuit last month, but Merin said he plans to appeal.
In dismissing the lawsuit, Mahan, whose district spans the state of Nevada, ruled that state officials didn’t compel Brown to get on a bus to Sacramento. Instead, he wrote, Nevada merely provided him with a bus ticket as a means to leave.
Brown wound up at the Loaves & Fishes homeless services complex and ultimately UC Davis Medical Center before being reunited with his daughter, who took him home to North Carolina.
In the lawsuit, Merin contended that discharging Brown to a bus violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution outlawing “cruel and unusual punishment,” saying the hospital was indifferent to Brown’s unstable psychological state. “We’re certainly not giving it up,” he told The Sacramento Bee following the court’s ruling.
Leras praised Merin’s lawsuit that, he said, recognized the inherent unfairness to the person involved being placed in a strange new environment while suffering from mental illness. The same could be said for the homeless whose sole possessions are taken away when they are rousted, he said.
“Mark and I have discussed how criminalization of homelessness seems to be the worst way to address the issue,” Leras said. “Mark understands that incarceration of such people is a waste of resources.”
An outspoken advocate of the homeless, Merin has won praise among Sacramento organizations with similar viewpoints about the treatment of homeless residents, including Loaves & Fishes, the largest private provider of services to homeless people in Sacramento.
The organization’s leaders came to know Merin during his lawsuit against the City of Sacramento’s anti-camping ordinance.
“That’s hard work. He treats his clients with a great deal of respect,” said Joan Burke of Loaves & Fishes.
She is not surprised by his involvement in the Shergill case.
“He often represents people who feel disenfranchised, and that, in itself, is empowering,” she said. “He also lives what he says in court.”
For example, Burke knows Merin has let specific homeless people sleep on the front porch of his personal residence when they have nowhere else to go.
“He’s a genuine, caring person who’s not pretentious at all,” she said.
Leras echoed her opinion, saying that if he could use one word to describe Merin, it would be “compassionate.”
Merin continues to advocate for homeless residents’ living conditions and fight against that ordinance which prohibits anyone from “camping out” more than one night in the same place.
He has also worked closely with Safe Ground, a proposed outdoor legal tent city with a central dining room and restrooms with plumbing.
“This is a bottom-up idea, but something Mark would very much be involved in,” Burke said.
In 2009, Merin opened up a vacant downtown Sacramento lot he owned and allowed the homeless to set up camp. After a neighbor complained that the crowd was causing him stress and health problems, Sacramento police officers moved in and swept everyone out.
It is not the first time Merin has battled City Hall.
Sights on Lodi
When he’s not traveling or litigating, Merin reads “a lot,” he said.
He recently finished Elinor Ostrom’s “Governing the Commons,” a study of groups of people with their own systems of problem solving that have operated since the 15th century.
“I believe if people have knowledge and are open to understanding, then solutions are available,” he said, summing up decades of his legal work.
Merin filed a claim against the City of Lodi on Feb. 13 on behalf of the Shergill family, stating essential evidence in the case has not been released in a timely manner.
“We want to establish that there’s a higher level of power overseeing police,” he said.
The claim states Shergill’s family has been seeking access to autopsy results, toxicology reports, reports of investigating officers, witness statements and photographs of the scene. The claim further states that Shergill’s personal property, including a diary, were taken from the family’s home shortly after the incident and have yet to be returned to the family.
The Lodi Police Department, San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office, San Joaquin County Sheriff ‘s Coroner and the California Department of Justice are conducting a investigation that police officers have said could take months to complete.
When it is complete, the district attorney will make a judgment as to whether or not the officers’ conduct was within the boundaries of the law.
“What’s interesting to me is the response from the community of Lodi,” Merin said. “They’re not asking for compensation, but for answers.”
In the end, Merin said he receives satisfaction from helping those who appreciate it. “That’s why I keep doing what I do.”
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.