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No Qualified Immunity for Officials Who Used Restraining Chair

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By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on November 15, 2013 9:57 AM

You may think of time travel as something straight out of a fiction novel. But last week, the Tenth Circuit took us on a trip down memory lane, as it had to recall the legal landscape in 1997 to determine the rights of a pretrial detainee.

Factual Background

When Brandon Blackmon was 11 years old, he was taken into custody as he was awaiting trial on rape charges. Weighing only 96 pounds, and standing just 4 feet 11 inches tall, Blackmon made attempts at suicide and self-harm. To prevent Blackmon from inflicting harm on himself, the juvenile detention center constrained him in a chair with ankle, chest, wrist and waist restraints.

Reaching adulthood, Blackmon now initiated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims against some of the staff at the juvenile detention center, arguing that the staff violated his rights as a pretrial detainee, under the Fourteenth Amendment's due process protections. The staff moved for summary judgment claiming qualified immunity, and the district court denied the motion. The defendants appealed to the Tenth Circuit.

Legal Landscape in 1997

The Tenth Circuit began its analysis noting the murky area between arrest and conviction, and the interplay between the Fourth Amendment (arrest) and the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment). After some discussion, the court settled on the rule that in 1997, pretrial detainees at a minimum had the "same constitutional protections as a convicted criminal."

Qualified Immunity Claims

Blackmon made claims against three groups of staff: those who exercised restraint over him, those who did not give him medical attention, and Ms. Sutton for failing to transfer him to a facility of his choice. The Tenth Circuit found that none of the staff, except for Ms. Sutton, could use the defense of qualified immunity because on the record, there was a "deliberate disregard" for his medical needs, and the restraining chair was used beyond permissible purposes.

Repercussion

While there is no precise timeline for determining when the "Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable searches and seizures end and the Fourteenth Amendment's due process detainee protections begin," courts will use common sense. Here, the Tenth Circuit noted: "Conduct that violates the clearly established rights of convicts necessarily violates the clearly established rights of pretrial detainees."

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