Articles Posted in Constitutional rights

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We are about to reach the 100 day milestone of the current POTUS, and with that come many criticisms and many “attaboys.”  It’s all in the eye of the beholder. This POTUS is the first in a string NOT to be a lawyer.  When you think about that, the fact that he is not a lawyer, nor has he ever served in any public service role, means he has had no formal training in the Constitution nor in either drafting, interpreting or applying legislation. These are things that lawyers do every day, day in and day out. That is pretty obvious. What may not be at the forefront of your mind when thinking about lawyers is the professionalism displayed by lawyers every day.  Not only must lawyers as professionals in the practice of law abide by certain formal ethical rules and rules of professionalism, they must also insure they practice with a certain courtesy and respect for their opponents and for the judicial system that other people, say, real estate tycoons, for example, do not.  So as we approach that 100 day marker for the POTUS, I have been thinking of a few things that POTUS, a non-lawyer, so far has failed to demonstrate consistently in the last 100 days and what he could learn from lawyers…things I think would naturally serve him, his administration and most importantly, the people of the United States, well.

  1.  Be Impeccable With Your Word.  A lawyer’s ability to advocate successfully for his or her client is only as good as his or her credibility, and credibility directly flows from being able to count on what a lawyer says as being true.  No half-truths, no hedging the truth, no embellishment to make your facts seem just a little bit better than they really are.  A lawyer must always tell the truth in all dealings or risk  complete  ineffectiveness, or worse, a client’s, or an opposing counsel’s, or a judge’s (gasp!) not being able to believe what the lawyer is telling them. Once that happens, all is lost. You may have heard this referred to as “your word is your bond.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines this as “If someone’s word is their bond, they always keep a promise.”  Nothing is truer for a lawyer.  Lawyers even have a duty of candor to the court to inform the court of case law or precedent that goes against their client’s position in court.  Can you imagine a salesperson having to tell a customer that he could actually sell a car to you for less than what you, the customer, is willing to pay for it? Of course not, but lawyers are required to act with that much candor and honestly at all times before the Court.  The ideals of professionalism in the practice of law are aimed at ensuring our profession remains a “high calling” and not “just a business like any other,” enlisted in the service not only of the clients, but of the public good as well.  “A Lawyer’s Creed,” developed by the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism (the Commission),  states it as thus:  “To the courts, and other tribunals, and to those who assist them, I offer respect, candor, and courtesy. I will strive to do honor to the search for justice. ” 
  2. Never Take Anything Personally.  I think this is good advice for everyone, but especially lawyers must behave like this and are expected to do so.  Trial lawyers must always do their jobs in an adversarial situation. By definition, there will also be another lawyer representing the opposing party in a lawsuit trying his or her level best to prevent you from succeeding. Think how hard this is!  If we were talking about the profession of medicine and using surgery as our analogy, no other surgeon comes into an operating room to try to prevent the operating surgeon from performing the surgery successfully! No other doctor comes in and tries to kill your patient! But that is precisely what occurs in the practice of law. Every time I represent a client there is an opposing counsel trying to prevent me from succeeding. It’s pretty stressful, but would be even worse if the lawyer takes his opposing counsel’s efforts personally.  The opposing counsel is just trying to do his job well, too. That’s all. And The Lawyer’s Creed requires lawyers to promise this to opposing counsel:  “To my colleagues in the practice of law, I offer concern for your welfare. I will strive to make our association a professional friendship.”  We also are required to make this promise: “To the opposing parties and their counsel, I offer fairness, integrity and civility. I will seek reconciliation and, if we fail, I will strive to make our dispute a dignified one.”  Temper tantrums and other demonstrations of pettiness and “unsportsmanlike conduct” have no place in the legal profession.   Following a trial, adversaries shake hands, regardless of the outcome. I have never had a problem shaking the hand of my able adversary when he or she has conducted himself or herself with integrity and professionalism throughout the litigation. It honors our justice system and your opponent. As Shakespeare wrote in “The Taming of the Shrew,” “do as adversaries do in law, strive mightily but eat and drink as friends.”

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“They treated him worse than a dog.”  That is how Kevin Williams, brother of Elliott Williams, described what correctional officers did to his brother at the Tulsa (Oklahoma) jail where Elliott was held for a week after being picked up by Tulsa police for behaving erratically at a hotel. Apparently, Elliott Williams was in the throws of a mental breakdown after his wife informed him she was leaving him.  Tulsa police picked him but never charged him with any crime, never finger-printed him, never set bond and never allowed him to call his family, despite repeated requests.  Mr. Williams told the guards he could not walked and felt he may have injured himself in his cell by hitting his head.  The guards thought Mr. Williams was joking, despite Mr. Williams’ lying naked on a blanket on the floor of his cell. He obviously could not move his lower extremities.  The hard-to-watch video shows the six days of agonizing torture Mr. Williams suffered at the hands of the jail guards.  I am warning you: before you watch the video, which is linked in The Frontier’s article about the case. It is nothing short of humiliating, degrading human torture by these guards. The video clearly shows the guards barely walking into Mr. Williams’ cell.  One places a cup of water on the floor by him.  Several times they slide boxes of food near him, which, of course, he can’t reach, open or eat because he is paralyzed. He does not drink anything or eat anything for six days while these jail guards watch him die. The only water he has for those horrific six days are a couple of drops that he is able to put in his mouth after he somehow was able to dip his fingers into a cup of water on the floor.  The video shows no attempt to give Mr. Williams any assistance at all, much less medical assistance to determine whether he was actually paralyzed, during those six long days. On the sixth day and the day of his death, the medical staff finally arrives, tests for reflexes and of course there are none because he is paralyzed and dead or dying. Only on the sixth day, after no medical help, no food, no water, does the jail’s medical staff attempt CPR on Mr. Williams, which of course does not work as he is dead.  Mr. Williams was allowed to die a most inhumane death conceivable, and his brother very aptly described it:  “He was treated worse than a dog.”

I have recently filed a lawsuit against Georgia State Prison for the attempted suicide of an inmate after he was found to be experiencing a psychotic break and in need of emergency psychiatric attention.  The prison’s idea of “emergency” psychiatric referral was an appointment with a psychiatrist five days later. Of course, my client, Nicholas, who was only 19 years old at the time, never made it to that appointment scheduled  five days later because less than 24 hours after being diagnosed with experiencing a psychotic break he attempted suicide by hanging himself with his bed sheet in his cell. His cellmate yelled and yelled for help. After a prison guard finally arrived at the cell, the guard saw him hanging but refused to get him down from the bed sheet noose. Instead, that guard radioed for assistance and the other guards, rather than helping Nicholas down from hanging, retrieved a camera to film him hanging. That video, as you can imagine, is graphic. Then the camera runs out of battery charge. So the guards leave Nicholas hanging and retrieve a second camera (I am NOT making this up) to continue filming him. Finally, the guards go into the cell to remove Nicholas and find that he is still alive. They begin CPR.  They are able to revive him, but due to the lack of oxygen for such a long time, he is left in a persistent minimally conscious state and suffered irreversible brain damage. He now requires 24 hour care in a nursing home. He cannot eat, he cannot speak and he cannot move by himself.  To say this case is tragic would be a massive understatement.

So, I have been immersing myself in jail and prison suicide cases and the applicable law.  Essentially, the only way to sue a jail or prison successfully on this type of constitutional rights violation is under a Federal statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  Under this statute, the plaintiff must prove that the state actor (individual state or government employee) acted with “deliberate indifference” to the constitutional rights of the inmate. The determination as to whether a state actor acted with deliberate indifference in violation of either the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendment consists of an objective and subjective inquiry.  Hopper v. Montgomery Cty. Sheriff, 3:14-CV-158, 2017 WL 495511, at *12 (S.D. Ohio Feb. 6, 2017).  “Deliberate indifference requires the following: (1) subjective knowledge of a risk of serious harm; (2) disregard of that risk; (3) by conduct that is more than gross negligence.” Shuford v. Conway, 16-12128, 2016 WL 6820764, at 6 (11th Cir. Nov. 18, 2016). The plaintiff must show the constitutional right allegedly violated was “clearly established” at the time of the incident, so that an officer cannot claim as a defense that he “didn’t know” his treatment of an inmate violated the inmate’s constitutional rights.  “In this circuit, the law can be ‘clearly established’ for qualified immunity purposes only by decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, or the highest court of the state where the case arose.” Jenkins by Hall v. Talladega City Bd. of Educ., 115 F.3d 821, 826 n.4 (11th Cir. 1997). This inquiry is limited to the law at the time of the incident, as “an official could not be reasonably expected to anticipate subsequent legal developments.”  A plaintiff can show the constitutional right violated was clearly established in three different ways: (1) case law with indistinguishable facts clearly establishing the constitutional right; (2) a broad statement of principle within the Constitution, statute, or case law that clearly establishes a constitutional right; or (3) conduct so egregious that a constitutional right was clearly violated, even in the total absence of case law. Lewis v. City of W. Palm Beach, 561 F.3d 1288, 1291–92 (11th Cir. 2009); see also Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 743, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 2517, 153 L.Ed.2d 666 (2002) (noting that the reasoning of this Circuit’s holdings, even if a case did not involve the same precise facts, sends a sufficient message to reasonable officers in this Circuit for the purposes of the “clearly established analysis”).