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Articles Tagged with 8th Amendment

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I was checking the newly released opinions from the United States Supreme Court and Taylor v. Riojas (11/2/2020) caught my eye.  I’m not sure why.  I must have seen “qualified immunity” somewhere in the summary. Taylor v. Riojas was one of the bunch of qualified immunity cases coming up at the same time before the Supreme Court and on which there was much speculation over whether the Supreme Court might overturn the qualified immunity doctrine. “Qualified Immunity” is a judicially-created doctrine that gives police officers and correctional officers the benefit of the doubt when someone under their control has suffered injury.  This Judge-made doctrine shields an officer from suit when she/he makes a decision that, even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law governing the circumstances she/her confronted. Excuse the pun, but it is a get-out-of-jail-free card to officers.

I call the Taylor v. Riojas opinion a Loch Ness Monster because it denied correctional officers in Texas the usual qualified immunity. Thus, like the Loch Ness Monster, you have heard of cases in which (hypothetically) qualified immunity was denied but you have never actually seen one.  Well, now you have. The United States Supreme Court reversed the 5th Circuit and remanded the case for trial.  Before we take stock of that, you need to know the facts of the case.  I am quoting directly from the 2 and 1/4 page opinion, perhaps the shortest in Supreme Court history.

“Petitioner Trent Taylor is an inmate in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Taylor alleges that, for six full days in September 2013, correctional officers confined him in a pair of shockingly unsanitary cells. The first cell was covered, nearly floor to ceiling, in “ ‘massive amounts’ of feces”: all over the floor, the ceiling, the window, the walls, and even “ ‘packed inside the water faucet.’ ” Taylor v. Stevens, 946 F.3d 211, 218 (CA5 2019). Fearing that his food and water would be contaminated, Taylor did not eat or drink for nearly four days. Correctional officers then moved Taylor to a second, frigidly cold cell, which was equipped with only a clogged drain in the floor to dispose of bodily wastes. Taylor held his bladder for over 24 hours, but he eventually (and involuntarily) relieved himself, causing the drain to overflow and raw sewage to spill across the floor. Because the cell lacked a bunk, and because Taylor was confined without clothing, he was left to sleep naked in sewage.

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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”).

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Two interesting but diametrically opposed cases came out last month dealing with deaths of prisoners in Georgia jails.  One came out in favor of the prisoner who was killed. The other came out in favor of the police department.  Why?  I thought it would be interesting to take a look and compare the two.

Jail deaths occur rather frequently. As I discuss “jail deaths” in this blog I am excluding death by natural causes, e.g., disease or old age and I am excluding for now wrongful death of an inmate caused by inadequate medical care in prison (which  also is very frequent). I am referring to jail death proximately caused by another person, whether that other person is another inmate or a custodial officer. The nationwide average of jail deaths is 983.  The annual average of jail deaths in Georgia is 46.  Some of these deaths account for an increased fervor across the nation for criminal justice reform.

But how do the courts treat wrongful jail deaths?  Two Georgia cases show a large disparity in court treatment even in the face of what are clearly egregious facts.  It is notoriously difficult to sue successfully a prison warden or any state deputies, sheriffs or police officers for their conduct related to the death of an inmate. These suits are frequently brought but infrequently won. Why?  Because the burden of proof for the family or estate administrator who would bring a wrongful death suit on behalf of a prisoner killed while incarcerated is astronomically high. So high it is seldom met.  A plaintiff in a prisoner death case must allege violation of the prisoner’s 8th Amendment Constitutional rights, which is the Amendment that prevents the government from enacting cruel and unusual punishment on a prisoner. Beyond just restraining prison officials from inflicting “cruel and unusual punishments” upon inmates, the 8th Amendment also imposes duties on these officials to take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates.  But plaintiffs must show the prison officials acted with “deliberate indifference” to the prisoner’s constitutional rights, which is a pretty high mark to meet. It is just slightly shy of intentional conduct. “Deliberate indifference” in the context of a failure to prevent harm has a subjective and an objective component, i.e., the plaintiff must prove the prison official actually knew an inmate faced a substantial risk of harm and that the defendant disregarded that known risk by failing to respond to it in an objectively reasonable manner.

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