By Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday refused to revive civil rights lawsuits against jail staff and police in two cases from Texas in which these officials were granted a protection called “qualified immunity” after being accused of misconduct.
One case involved a suit by the family of an inmate who died in 2017 after strangling himself in a cell with a telephone cord while the on-duty guard stood by in a small-town Coleman County jail. The other involved a suit by the family of a man who erupted in flames and died after police in the city of Arlington shot him with a stun gun after he doused himself with gasoline.
Lower courts blocked the lawsuits by granting the police and jail officials qualified immunity. This legal defense protects police and other government officials from civil litigation in certain circumstances, permitting lawsuits only when an individual’s “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights have been violated.
The lawsuits accused the police and jail officials of violating individual rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.
The justices let stand a lower court ruling that had found that Coleman County jail guard Jessie Laws was protected under qualified immunity from a lawsuit accusing him of violating the constitutional rights of inmate Derrek Monroe, who had been arrested two days before for a suspected drug offense.
The lower court also granted immunity to the guard’s supervisors, Sheriff Leslie Cogdill and Mary Jo Brixey, who oversaw the jail.
Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented in the Supreme Court’s action in Monroe’s case, as she did along with the other two liberal justices, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, in the other case involving the death of Gabriel Eduardo Olivas in Arlington. Breyer officially retired from the court on Thursday.
Law enforcement professionals and some U.S. conservatives have argued that qualified immunity is essential for police to make quick decisions in dangerous situations without fear of lawsuits. Critics of the legal principle have said that it has been used to shield from accountability officers who have clearly engaged in misconduct.
Reuters in 2020 published an investigation that revealed how qualified immunity, with the Supreme Court’s continual refinements, has made it easier for police officers to kill or injure civilians with impunity. (To see the Reuters investigation, click https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-police-immunity-scotus)
The suit filed by Monroe’s mother and others accused the jail officials of violating Monroe’s right to due process of law under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which protects pre-trial detainees – who have not been found guilty of a crime – from harm or punishment.
The plaintiffs said the jail officials acted with “deliberate indifference” toward Monroe, who was suicidal, by placing him in a cell with a long phone cord, and by failing to render aid or call emergency services when he strangled himself.
The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted the jail staff qualified immunity. The 5th Circuit found that Laws acted unreasonably by neglecting to call emergency medical services, but that prior cases had not clearly established such a requirement or established that his decision to wait for backup to enter Monroe’s cell was unlawful.
The 5th Circuit also granted qualified immunity to Arlington police officers Jeremias Guadarrama and Ebony Jefferson, who used the stun gun on the gasoline-soaked Olivas, causing him to burst into flames. Olivas had also been suicidal and threatened to burn down his family house, according to legal filings.
The suit by Olivas’ family accused police of using excessive force in violation of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures, alleging they knew their actions would cause him to be set on fire.
“Using deadly force that does no more than knowingly effectuate the exact danger to be forestalled is clearly unreasonable,” Sotomayor wrote.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)