Close Up Of Gavel Resting On Its Sounding Block

Sheriff’s department employees in Rio Grande County can be sued for letting a detainee mutilate himself in custody, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled on Tuesday.

The three-member panel affirmed the decision of a lower court, accepting the previous determination without performing a separate analysis of whether the officers violated the plaintiff’s rights.

“I think this qualified immunity case was correctly decided, although more on procedural and technical grounds than substantive ones,” said Suzette Malveaux, a professor of civil rights law at the University of Colorado. “The 10th Circuit’s decision does not go to the meat of the qualified immunity defense that many critics find troubling: i.e., that the defense often functions as an almost absolute shield for officers who violate everyday people’s constitutional rights.”

In November 2015, Gordon G. Sawyers allegedly set fire to an art gallery because, he said, god told him to “cleanse the business of witches with fire.” After his arrest and mental assessment, a counselor concluded that Sawyers had “grandiose and persecutory delusions and psychosis that interferes with his being able to exercise good judgment, understand reality as others do, and to behave appropriately.”

The counselor added that Sawyers did not appear to present a harm to himself or others, but that he should be evaluated while in custody. Law enforcement transferred Sawyers from Mineral County, where he was arrested, to the Rio Grande County Jail. While there, he self-mutilated, refused meals and medication, and continued to be seen by mental health workers.

Sawyers received a diagnosis of schizophrenia, but a clinician subsequently reaffirmed that he did not merit court intervention because of the lack of harm he presented. The sheriff at the time, Brian Norton, ordered jail personnel to keep a log of Sawyers’s behavior to aid the mental health workers.

Jonathan L. Hart, Gary Bruder and Jesse Hand were sheriff’s employees on duty on Dec. 2  monitoring the area where Sawyers was located. Although they were supposed to check on Sawyers every 15 minutes, there were gaps in the recordkeeping and surveillance footage for a three-hour period beginning after 6 p.m.

“At around 9:15 p.m.,” the federal district court wrote, “the officers entered the cell and discovered that Sawyers had removed his right eye from its socket and was attempting to injure his left eye.”

Sawyers sued Norton and his employees individually for acting indifferently toward his medical needs in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment rights. He also alleged that the sheriff adhered to a practice of deficient healthcare in his jail and failed to train the officers appropriately.

A federal district court granted Norton’s request to dismiss the claims against him, but allowed the lawsuit to proceed against the three jail employees. In doing so, the court denied qualified immunity, which is the judicial doctrine granting government employees a defense against lawsuits absent a violation of clearly-established constitutional rights.

Judge Scott M. Matheson, Jr., in writing for the 10th Circuit, explained that if a district court finds a reasonable jury could conclude the facts of a case were favorable to the plaintiff, the appellate court was generally obligated to uphold that finding. Accordingly, the circuit panel declined to challenge the lower court on its conclusions.

The officers argued that they did not disregard the risk to Sawyers because they kept watch over him, distributed medications and sought the advice of health professionals. However, Matheson wrote, ”the district court found a reasonable jury could infer facts to conclude otherwise” based on the employees' lack of documented whereabouts for three hours. He quoted the district court’s determination that such a gap was “long enough to permit the subsequent inference that they may have recklessly left unmonitored an inmate whom they had very good reason to believe could be a danger to himself.”

The circuit panel also sidestepped the issue of whether officers violated Sawyers's clearly-established rights — because the officers neglected to challenge that determination in their opening brief.

However, the court agreed that Rio Grande County could be sued under Colorado law, which waives immunity for injuries arising in a public hospital, correctional facility or jail.

Benjamin Levin, an associate law professor at the University of Colorado, felt that the ruling was a response more to the legal approach of the defendants than a statement on qualified immunity itself.

“The attorneys really didn’t do much with this ‘clearly established’ [rights] point. The argument that they were making on appeal was a fact-intensive argument about whether there was a constitutional violation,” he said.

In cases of qualified immunity, Levin said that courts tend to read case law narrowly, relying on past decisions and comparing them to the circumstances of current claims. He mentioned a hypothetical example of corrections officers withholding food for a week from a detainee, which a court may deem a clear constitutional violation. However, in a second hypothetical case in which the deprivation only lasts for five days, there is no guarantee that the finding will hold.

“What makes qualified immunity so tricky and there are all the efforts to reform or do away with qualified immunity,” he said, “is it’s not clear whether that earlier case stands for the proposition that it would be a clearly-established constitutional violation to not feed someone for five days.”

In the circuit court’s opinion Matheson concluded by noting that the panel had reviewed Senate Bill 217, the recently-passed police accountability legislation that ended qualified immunity as a defense in state-level lawsuits against police. The judges concluded the new law did not apply in Sawyers’s case.

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