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Lack Of Deliberate Indifference Negates Constitutional Violation In Prisoner Suicide

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that defendants in a § 1983 action stemming from a prisoner suicide did not violate the deceased's constitutional rights and were therefore entitled to summary judgement.

Danny Ray Butler was arrested on a charge of driving while intoxicated and was taken to the Winston County (Alabama) Jail. The arresting officer informed jailer Allen Cole that Butler had made references to suicide. Accordingly, Butler was put in a cell where he could be observed and items such as his belt and shoelaces were taken away from him. At 9:30 p.m that evening, jailer Cole, the only jailer on duty, discovered Butler had hung himself with the elastic from his underwear. Butler was pronounced dead at the scene. Butler's sister, Cynthia Cagel, subsequently brought § 1983 against the County and county officials in their individual capacity on her brother's behalf.

A United States District Court denied the summary judgement motion of defendants Winston County, Sheriff David Sutherland and Jailer Cole and they appealed. "The district court apparently believed that [a 1984 settlement over conditions of confinement at the jail in which the County, among other things, agreed to have at least two jailers on duty from 5 p.m. until. 8 a.m., but admitted no unconstitutional conditions] equated to a violation of Butler's constitutional rights."

The Eleventh Circuit remanded with orders to grant the defendants' motion for summary judgement, holding: 1) "Because Butler was a pretrial detainee, his section 1983 claims [were] based on the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment." 2) "[I]n a prisoner suicide case, to prevail under section 1983 for violation of substantive rights, under ... the ... fourteenth amendment, the plaintiff must show that the jail officials displayed 'deliberate indifference' to the prisoner's taking of his own life." Edwards v. Gilbert, 867 F.2d 1271, 1274-75 (11th Cir. 1990). 3) None of the defendants acted with deliberate indifference; therefore, no violation of Butler's constitutional rights existed. See: Cagle v. Sutherland, 334 F.3d 980 (11th Cir. 2003).

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