Friday, January 26, 2018

Qualified immunity gets officers off the hook in prison sexual abuse case

Astute readers know that qualified immunity plays a big role in federal civil rights litigation. These cases are brought under Section 1983, the federal civil rights statute. Not all governmental officials who break the law are found liable under Section 1983. If the law was not clearly established at the time of the rights violation, these defendants get the benefit of the doubt and cannot be sued.

The case is Crawford v. Cuomo, a summary order decided on January 25. The plaintiffs were inmates in state prison. They claim the defendant officers fondled their genitals during pat-frisks and that one defendant, Brown, was deliberately indifferent to defendant Prindle's predations. In 2015, the Second Circuit held in this case that the plaintiffs stated a claim under the Eighth Amendment. 796 F.3d 252 (2d Cir. 2015). On remand, the trial court granted defendants qualified immunity, holding that at the time of these incidents, the courts had not yet clearly squared away the contours of this right under the Eighth Amendment. Hence, qualified immunity for the defendants.

The Court of Appeals (Katzmann, Kearse and Oetken [D.J.]) now holds that the trial court got it right on remand and that the officers get qualified immunity. While the Second Circuit did hold in Boddie v. Schneider, 105 F.3d 857 (2d Cir. 1997), that "sexual abuse of a prisoner by a corrections officer may in some circumstances violate" the Eighth Amendment, that does not mean the law was clearly established when the defendants in Crawford allegedly fondled the plaintiffs. The Court reasons:

Although Boddie held that inmate sexual abuse could, in principle, violate the Eighth Amendment, it concluded that a “small number of incidents in which [the plaintiff] allegedly was verbally harassed, touched, and pressed against without his consent” were insufficient to state a claim. Contrary to plaintiffs’ argument, the allegations we considered in Boddie are quite similar to the allegations here. A reasonable officer could therefore have believed that the sexual abuse here alleged, even if it might violate state criminal law or subject him to tort liability, did not violate the Eighth Amendment. At a minimum, any constitutional distinction between this case and Boddie was not clearly established in March 2011.
Plaintiffs also argue that cases from other circuits had foreshadowed the Second Circuit's holding in the first Crawford appeal that defendants violated the Constitution. No dice. "Although some other courts had described an inmate’s right to be free of sexual abuse in admirably clear, broad terms, '[t]he dispositive question is whether the violative nature of the particular conduct is clearly established,' and out-of-circuit authority was, at the time, sharply divided on whether abuse comparable to Prindle’s was cruel and unusual."

What it all means is the defendants are off the hook. If the plaintiffs are correct that they were fondled during a pat-frisk, the defendants may have known they were acting immorally. But the law at the time did not squarely hold that their actions violated the Constitution. This case surprises me, as I assumed that any abusive conduct by a corrections officer would squarely violate the Constitution. I was wrong.

No comments: