Criminal Law

Jailhouse Homicide Tests Excessive Force Doctrine

Prisons in the United States can be violent places. Sometimes, it's not the inmates who are violent; sometimes, it?s the guards. In San Francisco, an inmate's survivors recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the City and County of San Francisco claiming that sheriff's deputies violated his civil rights by using excessive force.

Death of an Inmate

Thirty-one year old Issiah Downes died on September 7, 2009 inside his jail cell. The medical examiner concluded Downes died at the hands of prison guards. The examiner said Downes suffocated during his struggle with the deputies. The death was ruled a homicide. The ruling is a medical conclusion, not a legal criminal one.

Prisoners' Rights: Criminal Laws

In the United States and other civilized countries, we treat even those who've committed crimes with a measure of humanity. The Constitution's prohibition against? cruel and unusual punishment reflects this principle. Additionally, one of the goals of the criminal justice system is rehabilitation. For these reasons, prison officials can be punished for crimes against inmates.

Some states have criminal laws applicable only to mistreatment of inmates by prison officials. For example, under Arizona law a public officer may be fined and jailed up to six months for willful inhumanity or oppression toward a prisoner.

In all states the general criminal laws also apply to correctional officers. So a prison guard can be prosecuted for assault and battery or homicide.

Did Guards Use Excessive Force?

As a matter of federal law prison officials may not use unreasonable or excessive force against inmates in maintaining order and discipline. This standard isn't new and is well understood. Prison officials may use force as needed to maintain discipline. They must act in good faith. They can't use force maliciously and sadistically in order to cause harm. The difficulty lies in determining whether what happens in any given incident amounts to unreasonable or excessive force.

Downes was over six feet tall and more than 300 pounds. He'd become agitated and uncooperative as guards attempted to move him to an isolation cell. Although witness accounts vary, guards subdued him twice, once allegedly with their bodies and knees. Downes was heard to complain that he couldn't breathe. At some point he stopped breathing and died.

Before he did, witnesses said they heard him murmuring and moaning inside the cell for some time. Officers were present, yet they did not summon a nurse until after Downes stopped breathing. She stated previously that she became concerned that Downes was moaning so long, but she did not intervene until called by the officers.

The San Francisco District Attorney?s office is still investigating Downes' death. It?s unknown if the deputies will be charged with murder, manslaughter, or no crime at all.

Prisoners' Rights: Civil Relief Available to Inmates

The Downes family isn?t waiting for the outcome of the criminal investigation. They've hired an attorney and filed a civil rights lawsuit. They claim the prison guards violated Downes' civil rights by wrongfully causing his death. They also allege a cover-up. They're seeking $50 million in damages and also asking for changes in prison procedure.

This is a lawsuit under the federal Civil Rights Act. Proving that prison officials denied an inmate's civil rights isn't easy. Courts receive many complaints of excessive force. The law requires courts to deny any claim involving small or insignificant use of force. The force must be excessive to violate an inmate's civil rights.

"Qualified Immunity"

Prison officials have what's called qualified immunity from suit for civil rights violations. Prison officials can only be held liable for using force if they know or should know that the force would violate a prisoner's constitutional rights. This defense is meant to shield prison officials from liability for their official, lawful acts. It protects them from hindsight and second-guessing, and allows them to act in good faith in the event without worrying they might be liable for the result.

Qualified immunity then depends on the circumstances. For example, qualified immunity wouldn't apply to:

  • A guard who without provocation or justification throws a prisoner across a hallway and into a wall; a guard should be aware of a prisoner's rights to be free of excessive force
  • A guard who sexually assaults an inmate

Qualified immunity should apply to officers who use reasonable force to obtain inmate compliance with a prison rule or order. The key question is whether the guards believed they used nonlethal force in subduing an obstinate inmate and gaining compliance with the order.

Prisons are unfortunate but necessary parts of a criminal justice system. Prison officials must keep order and discipline in the inmate population. Even so they must respect the rights of inmates to pay their debt to society in a safe and secure place. The criminal and civil laws prohibiting use of excessive force are in place to make it so.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • If an inmate is assaulted by prison guards, what procedures must he follow to file a lawsuit?
  • What legal protection does a prison guard have from frivolous or malicious complaints and lawsuits by inmates?
  • What rules are in place for prison guards to follow in restraining inmates?

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