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No Qualified Immunity for Excessive Force at Ohio Jail

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of qualified immunity to Ohio jailers on a detainee’s excessive force, denial of medical care, equal protection and state law claims.

On April 3, 2004, Ohio State Highway Patrol Trooper Helen McManes stopped William Harris, Jr. for speeding. After smelling alcohol, she administered field sobriety and breathalyzer tests. McManes told Harris that he was near the legal limit but she was not going to charge him with DUI. She said she was going to issue a speeding ticket and returned to her vehicle to write it up.

Trooper R.A. Cooper then arrived on the scene and ultimately arrested Harris for DUI and an outstanding misde-meanor warrant. Harris was upset and cursed at the officers; he was cuffed and transported to the Circleville City Jail. Circleville’s population is “primarily white” with only two to five percent of detainees being black, according to a jail em-ployee. Harris was black.

Police officers Glenn Williams, Phillip Roar and Robert Gaines were working at the jail when Harris arrived. Williams directed that Harris be taken to cell no. 3, a “drunk tank.” There, outside the view of surveillance cameras, the officers be-gan the booking process.

During that process, a guard yanked Harris’s necklace with a ballpoint pen. When he objected, “one of the officers ... kicked Harris’s leg out from under him and pushed him in the back, causing him to fall and hit the left side of his head. The officers said nothing … before taking him to the ground.” They then picked him up and walked him out of the cell back-wards, into the booking area. There was an officer on each side and one was lifting Harris’s cuffed hands behind his back.

Williams ordered Harris to “kneel down,” but he couldn’t comply due to the officer pulling up on his arms behind him. “The officers used a ‘take down’ maneuver to get Harris down on the floor.” Gaines struck Harris in the back of the knee and Roar “administered two peroneal strikes to the left side of Harris’s leg.” Harris was not resisting when he was taken down.

“Harris screamed out in pain, cried ‘you broke my neck,’” and “told the officers to stop shocking him because it felt like electricity was running through his arms and legs and he could not move.” Harris told the officers, “I can’t move. I can’t move. I think y’all did something. I can’t move.”

The officers ignored him and ordered him to stand up. When he continued to claim that he couldn’t, he was stripped to his t-shirt, underwear and socks, and dragged back into cell 3 at 10:18 p.m.

An officer entered the cell as Harris continued to plead for help, and ordered him to get up. When he stated he couldn’t, the officer said, “Yes, you can,” kicked him in the ribs, said “Looks like we got us a broke nigger here,” and then left.

McManes later approached the cell to read Harris some paperwork; he was still on the floor pleading for help, but she ignored him. Finally, Corporal Stephanie Kinser checked on Harris and contacted Sergeant Barton, who came to the cell. Upon seeing Harris’s condition, Barton called for an ambulance at 11:39 p.m. Tests at the hospital revealed that Harris had suffered a spinal cord injury and he underwent corrective surgery three days later.

Harris filed suit, and the U.S. District Court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. They then sought an interlocutory appeal.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed in an October 2, 2009 ruling. The appellate court first rejected the defendants’ argument that Harris’s excessive force claim should have been assessed under the Fourteenth Amendment rather than the Fourth. The Court concluded that it did not need to decide which standard applied because the facts were “sufficient to establish a violation of Harris’s constitutional rights under either standard.” Therefore, the “defendants [were] not entitled to qualified immunity.”

The Court of Appeals also affirmed the denial of qualified immunity on Harris’s deliberate indifference claim, finding that he presented sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that he had an obvious, serious medical need that the defen-dants ignored in violation of jail policy.

Likewise, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of qualified immunity on Harris’s equal protection claim. The appellate court agreed “that Harris … presented sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that [the] defen-dants used excessive force and delayed medical treatment because of Harris’s race.”

Finally, finding that “a reasonable jury could conclude [the defendants] acted with a malicious purpose or in a wanton or reckless manner,” the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s denial of immunity under Ohio Revised Code § 2744.3(A)(6) on Harris’s state law assault and battery claim. See: Harris v. Circleville, 583 F.3d 356 (6th Cir. 2009).

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Related legal case

Harris v. Circleville