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.

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Comments on “Supreme Court Reverses Decision Granting Qualified Immunity To Guards Who Threw An Inmate Into A 'Feces-Covered' Cell”

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29 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Next up: 'Oh no, that ruling only covered HUMAN shit, not dog..'

Even among QI cases, which are infamous for being incredibly stupid and ripe with corruption this one stands out.

How unbelievably stupid and/or corrupt do you have to be to rule that since it hasn’t been explicitly stated that throwing a prisoner into a shit-covered cell for ‘only’ a few days there was no way for them to know that that wasn’t allowed? The judge(s) involved somehow managed to reach that point, but damn if that feat isn’t impressive for all the wrong reasons.

Judges like that are not doing law enforcement and/or prison guards any favors by repeatedly treating them as the dumbest people on the planet, and are if anything merely entrenching the contempt people might have for them as they see people who are given immense power and authority treated as special little snowflakes who need to be protected at all costs from being held responsible for their own actions, because they don’t have so much as a single working brain-cell knocking around in their skulls and as such can’t be expected to be able to engage in even the most basic thinking.

David says:

Re: Next up: 'Oh no, that ruling only covered HUMAN shit, not do

Judges like that are not doing law enforcement and/or prison guards any favors by repeatedly treating them as the dumbest people on the planet

What I don’t get with the qualified immunity hoax is how one can on the one hand assume that an officer is so abysmally stupid not to understand the most basic principles of constitutional (and human) rights, yet is judged based on the assumption of having a full overview over the complete roster of violations and conditions that may have created legal precedent.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Maybe it’s a good thing that this had to be kicked up to the Supreme Court, but only given that a proper ruling was obtained, and only given that lower courts want to be so stupid, and only given that the Supreme Court needs to clean up its freaking mess. Their QI rulings have nade the entire country a cell covered in feces.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Bobvious says:

Re: Re: Re: How does that verse go again?

Your Honour,

the prisoner struck my rapidly moving closed fist with his stationary face, then continued the attack by assaulting me with blood from his nose. After defending myself from his ribcage impacting upon my fist, he compounded the assault by vomiting on me, with malice aforethought. He then deliberately slumped forward in his electric wheelchair and engaged the joystick so that the wheels would run over my foot.

The defense counsel expects this court to believe that the prisoner’s "refusal" to identify themselves was due to a tracheotomy, which only became apparent to this department after the post mortem.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 How does that verse go again?

Henry Davis is, unfortunately, a legitimate case where police officers charged a man with four counts of "destruction of property" for bleeding on their uniforms as they administered a brutal beating in a jail cell.

Naturally the tape recording of the event from security cameras were conveniently taped over, leaving Henry Davis words about events against that of officers.

Just one more in a long line of Ferguson cases of police abuse.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The entry for
TAYLOR v. RIOJAS

included all of:

We therefore grant Taylor’s petition for a writ of certiorari,
vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth
Circuit, and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.

This was the Supreme Court saying, "Hey 5th circuit, we dealt with that shit earlier. Prisoners shouldn’t have to."

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Shit covered cells in US prisons

I guess the begged question in all this is…

Why did
— the Supreme Court of the United States
— the Fifth District Court
— any other decent person

not say anything about cleaning up these literal shitholes?

I suggest this:
It’s 20201110. Take till the end of the year to triage, stage prisoners, move them, CLEAN CELLS, ROOT OUT THE SEWERS and treat prisoners in the US humanely — that means "like humans".

As a corollary to that… any guard, officer, or warden who persists in perpetuating this… can find a new job 20210101.

Is this not common sense?

E

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Shit covered cells in US prisons

"Is this not common sense?"

Not in the US, no.

Bear in mind that what the 2020 election truly taught us wasn’t that the US could get its shit together and rid itself of a single manifest and obvious white supremacist…
…but that one out of three americans is an asshole with so little regard for the lives and dignity of others they’re just fine with a president like that.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Shit covered cells in US prisons

1/3rd of it is, yes.

And that’s going to be a problem now that the call is to "unify and reconciliate", because the current state of a LOT of americans reminds me of when I read about a story about one of the nazi camp guards who was, apparently, a good and sincere father and husband, a great neighbor who always helped out, an active member of a number of local community-enhancing groups…and whose only major failing was that his day job was to herd thousands of people into a gas chamber.

Most of the people still voting for Trump this election aren’t obvious monsters. They have manners, can act in society, value friends and family. But they are more than OK with racism, fascism, stealing a thousand children from asylum-seeking parents and not giving a shit about what happens to those children, and see no wrong in railroading every principle of law or constitution as long as they can justify it with my party, über alles.

Trying to reconcile with those people isn’t being moderate and impartial. It means giving racism and fascism credibility. It’s as odious as being the guy who knows a friend of his likes to date rape for a hobby and still won’t turn his back on that friend. It means that to you as well, being a monster is not a dealbreaker.

Either the sane majority of the US draws a line in sand here or the future eventually ends in yet another reich, once they’ve all "compromised" themselves straight into being the average 1933 German who failed to speak up loud enough against herr Hitler.

For law enforcement to use a literal shithole – gleefully – to imprison a human being for six days…means the standards are lower than in most of what we today call the third world. And somehow to americans that unbelievable state of affairs is a…tasteless footnote. A normalized state of affairs.

The US is circling the clogged drain here.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Shit covered cells in US prisons

"Is this not common sense?"

That depends on what your view of the justice system is. Unfortunately, many in the US see the justice system as a means to punish rather than reform, and think that prisoners should lose all human rights the moment they’re convicted (and sometimes before – many seem to think that due process and fair trials are optional).

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Shit covered cells in US prisons

" Unfortunately, many in the US see the justice system as a means to punish rather than reform"

Law ‘n Order cult

Strange how monied folk avoid such conditions, hell they hardly ever see a jail cell no matter what they do.

We can send a man to the moon, but we cannot find a cure for affluenza.

Upstream (profile) says:

Just wondering?

Does anyone know why Trent Taylor was arrested and jailed to begin with?

I found this about Trent Taylor:

According to court documents, on Nov. 2, the Supreme Court ruled that the guards who were working at the Montford Unit in Lubbock could be sued for mistreatment of Trent Taylor while he was at the psychiatric prison during the fall of 2013.

and

Prior to Taylor’s arrival at the Montford Unit, he was located at the Robertson Unit in Abilene. While in Abilene he took fourteen Lortab tablets and was admitted into the local hospital for suicide treatment.

Following his hospital visit, Taylor was moved to the Montford Unit on September 6, 2013. The Montford Unit is a state jail facility used mainly to treat psychiatric patients.

I also found this, but I could not verify that this is the same Trent Taylor. The date makes it a possibility, and while Tarrant County (Ft. Worth) is a long way from Lubbock, so is Abilene.

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