Topeka — The Kansas University Hospital Authority will have to absorb the $140,000 it cost to treat the injuries of a man who was supposed to be detained on federal immigration issues but was never taken into federal custody, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The case involved Alberto Contreras Gonzalez, who broke his hip in 2006 after leaping out of a fourth-story window of the Wabaunsee County jail facility.
Contreras had originally been arrested in March 2006 by the Kansas Highway Patrol and was awaiting trial in Wabaunsee County on state drug-related charges. While there, Contreras was also interviewed by an agent from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which placed a 48-hour hold on his release, which was supposed to give that agency time "to assume custody of the alien."
But ICE apparently never took him into custody. On March 21, he entered a diversion agreement with the Wabaunsee County prosecutor. Seven days later he was released and transferred to Shawnee County, where he had outstanding warrants. A copy of the ICE document to detain him was sent with him.
Contreras bonded out of Shawnee County on April 5 and was to appear in court in Topeka the next day. That evening, though, he returned to the Wabaunsee County jail to retrieve some personal belongings.
The Supreme Court noted that he was not arrested or taken into custody by Wabaunsee County at that time. But he was let into a room in the jail facility normally used for taking fingerprints and supervised visits with inmates. Contreras was told to wait there while a sheriff's deputy tried to sort out the situation.
Although the room was not locked, the court noted, the door knob turned in the opposite direction of most door knobs. The room also had a security camera, and tape from that camera showed Contreras tried to open the door but couldn't.
Contreras then picked up a chair and broke out a window, which had no bars or other barriers, and jumped out of the fourth-floor room, landing on the ground and breaking his hip.
When officers responded, he was briefly placed in handcuffs, but was released when an ambulance arrived. He was then flown by helicopter to KU Hospital in Kansas City, Kan., for treatment of injuries that included a broken hip. Again, a copy of the ICE detainer was sent with him.
While in the hospital, the court noted, Contreras was not under arrest and no guards were placed outside his room. The only police hold in his file at the time was the ICE detainer.
Wabaunsee County filed no charges for breaking the window and jumping out of the building. "In addition," the court said, "ICE had no interest in Contreras after he was released from the hospital."
KU Hospital tried to bill Wabaunsee County for the cost of the treatment, which Dennis McCullough, the hospital's public relations director, said was about $140,000. But the Supreme Court said under Kansas law, the county is responsible only for medical bills of inmates or people being held in the county's custody and if the person has no other means to pay the bill himself.
The hospital argued that it provided a service to the county by treating Contreras, and the county therefore should pay for that service.
But the court said the service was provided to Contreras, not the county. And because Contreras was not legally in the county's custody at the time of the incident, the county had no obligation to pay.