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No Constitutional Claim for Jail Guard Breaking Prisoner’s Hip and Wrist

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a constitutional violation did not occur when a guard told a prisoner to shut up and then shoved him with an open hand. Despite the serious injuries the prisoner sustained, the appellate court decided the surrounding circumstances indicated no malice by the guard was intended.
Before the Eleventh Circuit was the appeal of a Georgia federal district court’s grant of summary judgment to Deputy Henry King. The appeal was filed by prisoner Thomas Cockrell, who brought an excessive force claim against King for events that occurred at the Polk County Jail (PCJ) on October 2, 2004.
Cockrell was placed in PCJ’s “drunk tank” after his arrest for public drunkenness. While there another prisoner attempted suicide. Under PCJ policy, Cockrell was moved to another cell in order to house the suicide-prone prisoner in the drunk tank, which was suicide proofed.
While the suicidal prisoner was being moved, Cockrell, still drunk, began banging on his cell door with a shoe, demanding that he be allowed to post bond and be released. King opened Cockrell’s cell door, told him to “shut the hell up” and gave him an open-handed shove. Cockrell fell, sustaining a broken hip and wrist plus a lacerated ear.
The district court denied Cockrell’s motion to amend his complaint, which he requested because he had named an officer other than King as the person who shoved him. In finding the amendment would be futile, the court granted summary judgment to King because shoving “a belligerent, drunk, yelling inmate while also trying to see a prisoner who had just attempted suicide was placed on a more secure environment” did not violate the Constitution.
On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit said it must look at “the need for the application of force, the relationship between the need and the amount of force that was used, and the extent of the injury inflicted upon the prisoner.” Additionally, it must consider “the extent of the threat to the safety of staff and inmates, as reasonably perceived by reasonable officials on the basis of the facts known, and any efforts made to temper the severity of a forceful response.”
The Court of Appeals found Cockrell’s case presented a close question, but that King was entitled to summary judgment. The appellate court held it was not unreasonable for King to use some force to quiet Cockrell’s disturbance while trying to relocate the suicidal prisoner. That force, the Eleventh Circuit said, was minimal.
“The amount of force conveyed by an open-handed push or shove is as near to the minimum amount as an officer can employ, and it is not disproportionate to the need to restore order when dealing with a drunk and boisterous inmate.”
The Court of Appeals held that King could not foresee that a simple push would result in such an unfortunate amount of injury as Cockrell suffered. In addition to that factor, the appellate court found that the immediate summoning of medical attention for Cockrell weighed against a finding of excessive force. Finally, King’s order to “shut the hell up” evidenced a desire to restore order, not a wish to sadistically harm Cockrell.
As such, the district court’s summary judgment order was affirmed. See: Cockrell v. Sparks, 510 F.3d 1307 (11th Cir 2007).

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Related legal case

Cockrell v. Sparks