Supreme Court Reverses Decision Granting Qualified Immunity To Guards Who Threw An Inmate Into A 'Feces-Covered' Cell
from the maybe-SCOTUS-will-roll-back-even-more-of-its-own-terrible-QI-advice dept
Late last year, the Fifth Circuit Appeals Court reached a truly horrendous decision. Judge Don Willett’s scathing takedown of the “rigged game” that is qualified immunity — delivered in a different opinion — failed to move the dial in the Fifth Circuit, which found this doctrine could still cover a host of abusive behavior by government employees.
Making it easier to arrive at this dismal conclusion was the Supreme Court’s qualified immunity related efforts over the years. The nation’s top court has continuously tilted the scales in favor of misbehaving government employees, removing any common sense reading of the Constitution in favor of discussions about “clearly established” rights violations. This made it tougher to create precedent as plaintiffs had to show government employees were clearly aware their violations of rights were actually rights violations. The end result was more dismissals and less precedent.
Riding this lack of precedent to its illogical conclusion was this decision by the Fifth Circuit, handed down in late December of last year. Here’s what the inmate suing prison officials and guards had to deal with:
Taylor stayed in the first cell starting September 6, 2013. He alleged that almost the entire surface—including the floor, ceiling, window, walls, and water faucet—was covered with “massive amounts” of feces that emitted a “strong fecal odor.” Taylor had to stay in the cell naked. He said that he couldn’t eat in the cell, because he feared contamination. And he couldn’t drink water, because feces were “packed inside the water faucet.” Taylor stated that the prison officials were aware that the cell was covered in feces, but instead of cleaning it, Cortez, Davison, and Hunter laughed at Taylor and remarked that he was “going to have a long weekend.” Swaney criticized Taylor for complaining, stating “[d]ude, this is [M]ontford, there is shit in all these cells from years of psych patients.” On September 10, Taylor left the cell.
A day later, September 11, Taylor was moved to a “seclusion cell,” but its conditions were no better. It didn’t have a toilet, water fountain, or bunk. There was a drain in the floor where Taylor was ordered to urinate. The cell was extremely cold because the air conditioning was always on. And the cell was anything but clean.
[Trent] Taylor alleged that the floor drain was clogged, leaving raw sewage on the floor. The drain smelled strongly of ammonia, which made it hard for Taylor to breathe. Yet, he alleged, the defendants repeatedly told him that if he needed to urinate, he had to do so in the clogged drain instead of being escorted to the restroom. Taylor refused. He worried that, because the drain was clogged, his urine would spill onto the already-soiled floor, where he had to sleep because he lacked a bed. So, he held his urine for twenty-four hours before involuntarily urinating on himself.
And here’s the conclusion reached by the Appeals Court:
The law wasn’t clearly established. Taylor stayed in his extremely dirty cells for only six days. Though the law was clear that prisoners couldn’t be housed in cells teeming with human waste for months on end, see, e.g., McCord, 927 F.2d at 848, we hadn’t previously held that a time period so short violated the Constitution, e.g., Davis, 157 F.3d at 1005–06 (finding no violation partly because the defendant stayed in the cell for only three days). That dooms Taylor’s claim.
The decision quoted the Supreme Court, which previously held that it wasn’t “intolerably cruel” to house prisoners in “filthy” cells for “a few days.” Fortunately, the Supreme Court [PDF] has reversed the Fifth Circuit’s inexplicable decision, finding that this was a clear violation of rights.
The Fifth Circuit erred in granting the officers qualified immunity on this basis. “Qualified immunity shields an officer from suit when she makes a decision that, even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law governing the circumstances she confronted.” Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U. S. 194, 198 (2004) (per curiam). But no reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time.
The Fifth Circuit identified no evidence that the conditions of Taylor’s confinement were compelled by necessity or exigency. Nor does the summary-judgment record reveal any reason to suspect that the conditions of Taylor’s confinement could not have been mitigated, either in degree or duration.
The Supreme Court says there appears to be deliberate indifference on the part of at least a couple of the guards, given their remarks to Taylor.
[O]ne officer, upon placing Taylor in the first feces-covered cell, remarked to another that Taylor was “going to have a long weekend” […] another officer, upon placing Taylor in the second cell, told Taylor he hoped Taylor would “f***ing freeze”…
Of course, this never would have reached this stage if it wasn’t for the Supreme Court’s deliberate indifference towards plaintiffs suing over rights violations. But this at least upends one terrible decision from a lower court and suggests the nation’s top court might finally be willing to start undoing the damage it’s done.