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No Qualified Immunity for Guard Who Transported Prisoner in Dog Cage

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of qualified immunity to an Arkansas jail guard who transported a prisoner in a K-9 cage covered with feces, urine and dog hair.

In February 2007, jail guard Armand Zefferi transported Thomas Edward Morris III from the Crawford County Jail to the Pulaski County courthouse for a court appearance.

Morris had escaped while being taken to court in the past, so Zefferi decided to transport him in a dog cage used to haul police K-9s. The cage was filthy, containing dog feces, dog urine and dog hair. Morris, who was shackled with a belly chain, ankle restraints and handcuffs, was forced to lie in the feces, urine and hair for the nearly ninety-minute ride.
He complained afterward that the “restricted position [in the cage] caused [him] severe neck and hip pain which lasted for several weeks.”

In August 2007, Morris filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit against Zefferi alleging that his constitutional rights had been violated. The district court denied qualified immunity to Zefferi, holding that “the type of humiliation and degrading treatment alleged by Morris” constituted a clearly established violation of his constitutional rights. Zefferi filed an interlocutory appeal to the Eighth Circuit.

The first issue on appeal was whether Morris had adequately alleged a constitutional violation. Zefferi attempted to piecemeal the repugnant conditions to which Morris was subjected, to show that there was no constitutional violation. The conditions Morris had to endure, though, did not occur “in isolation,” the appellate court found.

Morris was “forced to crawl into a small cage littered with dog hair, excrement, and dried urine. He was then required to lie in an uncomfortable position while restrained by a waist belly chain, handcuffs and ankle restraints, for a ninety-minute car ride.” Under the “totality of circumstances,” the Court of Appeals wrote, “Zefferi’s decision to transport Morris in this manner transgress[ed] today’s broad and idealistic concepts of dignity, civilized standards, humanity, and decency,’” citing Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 685 (1978).

Turning next to the issue of qualified immunity, the Eighth Circuit held that the district court did not err in concluding it “should have been obvious to Zefferi based both on common sense and prior general case law” that his conduct was unconstitutional. This remained true despite the absence of “factually on point” precedent disclaiming the practice of transporting prisoners in dog cages, the appellate court emphasized.

Under the Court of Appeals’ recent en banc decision in Nelson v. Corr. Med. Services, 583 F.3d 522 (8th Cir. 2009) [PLN, April 2010, p.20], “[t]he obvious cruelty inherent” in certain practices give law enforcement all the notice they need that such behavior is “antithetical to human dignity.”

“Transporting a pretrial detainee in a small, unsanitary dog cage for ninety minutes, with no compelling urgency and other alternatives available,” the appellate court wrote, “sufficiently shows the possible infringement of a clearly established constitutional right to be free from improper punishment.”

The judgment of the district court denying qualified immunity to Zefferi was accordingly affirmed. See: Morris v. Zefferi, 601 F.3d 805 (8th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Morris v. Zefferi