Blackmon v. Sutton

Decision Date08 November 2013
Docket NumberNo. 12–3199.,12–3199.
Citation734 F.3d 1237
PartiesBrandon BLACKMON, Plaintiff–Appellee, v. Marla SUTTON, Natasha Tyson, Keith Gutierrez, John Hittle, Kirk Taylor, and Joan Fitzjarrald, Defendants–Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Tenth Circuit


Edward L. Keeley of McDonald, Tinker, Skaer, Quinn & Herrington, P.A., Wichita, KS, for DefendantsAppellants.

J. Philip Davidson of Hinkle Law Firm LLC, Wichita, KS (Paul J. Skolaut of Hinkle Law Firm LLC, Wichita, KS; Michael Jilka of Law Office of Michael Jilka, LLC, Lawrence, KS; and Timothy J. Finnerty of Wallace, Saunders, Austin, Brown & Enochs, Chrtd., Wichita, KS, with him on the brief) for PlaintiffAppellee.

Before GORSUCH, HOLLOWAY, and HOLMES, Circuit Judges.

GORSUCH, Circuit Judge.

Weeks before eleven-year-old, 4'11,? 96–pound Brandon Blackmon arrived at the juvenile detention center in Sedgwick, Kansas, officials there made a new purchase: the Pro–Straint Restraining Chair, Violent Prisoner Chair Model RC–1200LX. The chair bore wrist, waist, chest, and ankle restraints all. In the months that followed, the staff made liberal use of their new acquisition on the center's youngest and smallest charge. Sometimes in a legitimate effort to thwart his attempts at suicide and self-harm. But sometimes, it seems, only to punish him. And that's the nub of this lawsuit.

Now an adult, Mr. Blackmon has brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against various members of the juvenile detention center's staff, alleging they violated the Fourteenth Amendment rights guaranteed to him as a pretrial detainee. His claims focus primarily on their regular resort to the Pro–Straint chair, but he also contends they used other unlawful punishments, deprived him of essential medical attention, and should have transferred him to another facility. At summary judgment in the district court the defendants claimed qualified immunity and sought dismissal as a matter of law. The district court, however, declined the request and set the case for trial. At least when the facts are viewed in the light most favorable to Mr. Blackmon, the district court explained, they suggest the defendants sometimes exceeded the scope of the qualified immunity they enjoy. In this interlocutory appeal, the defendants ask us to reverse the district court's decision.

This we find we cannot do. True, qualified immunity is strong stuff: the defense shields public officials from suit as long as their conduct didn't infringe any legal rights clearly established at the time. See Camreta v. Greene, ––– U.S. ––––, 131 S.Ct. 2020, 179 L.Ed.2d 1118 (2011); Kerns v. Bader, 663 F.3d 1173, 1180 (10th Cir.2011). But even accounting for this, we find the results the district court reached correct in all but one particular. 1

The jurisprudential terrain between arrest and conviction remains today only partially charted. Over the last several decades, the Supreme Court has elaborated in considerable detail the standards of care prison administrators must satisfy to avoid inflicting “cruel and unusual” punishment on convicted prisoners in violation of the Eighth Amendment. E.g., Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 97 S.Ct. 285, 50 L.Ed.2d 251 (1976); Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 114 S.Ct. 1970, 128 L.Ed.2d 811 (1994). The Court has, as well, expounded on what force officers may and may not use to effect an arrest consistent with the Fourth Amendment and its prohibition of “unreasonable searches and seizures.” E.g., Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 109 S.Ct. 1865, 104 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989). But at least so far the Court has done comparatively little to clarify the standards of care due to those who find themselves between these stools—held by the government after arrest but before conviction at trial. See Catherine T. Struve, The Conditions of Pretrial Detention, 161 U. Pa. L.Rev. 1009 (2013).

We know that after the Fourth Amendment leaves off and before the Eighth Amendment picks up, the Fourteenth Amendment's due process guarantee offers detainees some protection while they remain in the government's custody awaiting trial. See Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 538–39, 99 S.Ct. 1861, 60 L.Ed.2d 447 (1979). But we do not know where exactly the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable searches and seizures end and the Fourteenth Amendment's due process detainee protections begin. Is it immediately after arrest? Or does the Fourth Amendment continue to apply, say, until arraignment? Neither do we know with certainty whether a single standard of care applies to all pretrial detainees—or whether different standards apply depending where the detainee stands in his progress through the criminal justice system. Might, for example, the accused enjoy more due process protection before a probable cause hearing than after? All these questions remain very much in play. See Struve, supra, at 1018–32.

The defendants make much of these lingering questions, going so far as to suggest they preclude the possibility they could have violated the clearly established legal right of any pretrial detainee in 1997, the time of the events in question in this lawsuit. But that argument proves a good deal too much. In the defendants' world, officials who engaged in sadistic and malicious conduct in 1997 would have violated the defined rights of convicted inmates, but the same conduct would not have violated the rights of pretrial detainees because of the comparative ambiguity surrounding their rights.

Though the law of pretrial detention may not have been precise in all its particulars in 1997, though it may remain comparatively ambiguous today, things have never been quite as topsy turvy as that. Pretrial detainees are not men without countries, persons without any clearly defined legal rights. By 1997, it was beyond debate that a pretrial detainee enjoys at least the same constitutional protections as a convicted criminal. Bell, 441 U.S. at 545, 99 S.Ct. 1861. Conduct that violates the clearly established rights of convicts necessarily violates the clearly established rights of pretrial detainees. By 1997, it was clearly established as well that prison officials run afoul of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments when they exhibit “deliberate indifference” to a convicted inmate's “serious medical needs.” Estelle, 429 U.S. at 104, 97 S.Ct. 285. It was clearly established, too, that Estelle's standard gives way to a more onerous test when “guards use force to keep order.” Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 6, 112 S.Ct. 995, 117 L.Ed.2d 156 (1992). In deference to the need to maintain order in a prison environment, liability will not attach in these particular circumstances unless the challenged force is “applied ... maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm.” Id. at 6, 112 S.Ct. 995.

Neither is this the end to what we know with certainty about the state of the law in 1997 regarding pretrial detainees. By then the Supreme Court had held that the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of due process prohibits any punishment of those awaiting trial. Punishment may be constitutionally acceptable for persons convicted of crimes—at least so long as it doesn't amount to “cruel and unusual” punishment as defined by Estelle and Hudson. But punishment is never constitutionally permissible for presumptively innocent individuals awaiting trial. Bell, 441 U.S. at 535, 99 S.Ct. 1861;see also Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 320–21, 102 S.Ct. 2452, 73 L.Ed.2d 28 (1982).

Where exactly do we draw the line between what does and doesn't constitute “punishment”? Historically, the government has enjoyed the authority to detain until trial those defendants who pose a flight risk. And no doubt those who find themselves detained in this manner experience a great many restrictions on their liberty—restrictions many of us would regard as punishment in themselves. But when do these restrictions pass, as a matter of law, from constitutionally acceptable to constitutionally impermissible?

Bell tells us the answer turns on the answers to two questions. First, we must ask whether an “expressed intent to punish on the part of detention facility officials” exists. 441 U.S. at 538, 99 S.Ct. 1861. If so, liability may attach. If not, a plaintiff may still prove unconstitutional punishment by showing that the restriction in question bears no reasonable relationship to any legitimate governmental objective. Id. at 539, 99 S.Ct. 1861. So, for example, the government may have a legitimate (nonpunitive) interest in ensuring a defendant's presence at trial and may (reasonably) keep him in custody pending trial if he proves a flight risk. Likewise, the government may have a legitimate interest in ensuring the safety and order of the facilities where it houses pretrial detainees. Restraints bearing a reasonable relationship to interests like these do not constitute punishment “even if they are discomforting.” Id. at 540, 99 S.Ct. 1861. At the same time, throwing a detainee in a dungeon and keeping him shackled there “may ensure his presence at trial and preserve the security of the institution,” but “it would be difficult to conceive of a situation where conditions so harsh” would be reasonably related to any purpose except punishment. Id. at 539 n. 20, 99 S.Ct. 1861;see also Schall v. Martin, 467 U.S. 253, 269, 104 S.Ct. 2403, 81 L.Ed.2d 207 (1984).

* * *

With these (clearly established) legal principles in hand, we can now turn to Mr. Blackmon's primary complaint: the many hours he spent shackled to the Pro–Straint chair. The district court analyzed his claim under Hudson's demanding Eighth Amendment “malicious and sadistic” test for cruel and unusual punishments—and, even then, it found that Mr. Blackmon succeeded in stating a triable claim. We don't need to travel so far, however, to reach the same destination. While Hudson forbids a certain class of punishments for convicted prisoners (cruel and unusual ones), Bell forbids...

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