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Ninth Circuit Grants Qualified Immunity to California Prison Officials for Denial of Outdoor Exercise During Lengthy Lock-down

On March 17, 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted qualified immunity to California prison officials who had denied a prisoner outdoor exercise during a 15-month lockdown precipitated by a “particularly violent armed riot ... against staff.”

Steve Joseph Noble IV was incarcerated in Facility “C” at the Substance Abuse Treatment Center at Corcoran State Prison. A former Crip gang member, he was classified as Level IV, the highest security level.

On January 9, 2002, Corcoran staff members were attacked by Crips and other prisoners on the Facility “C” exercise yard. The riot, which included an attempt to kill a prison guard, left more than 20 other officers with injuries. The incident led to a formal declaration of a state of emergency and the imposition of another in a long series of lockdowns at Corcoran.

During that lockdown, prison officials conducted an investigation into the immediate causes of the riot. The investigation ended on January 30, 2002 but was not conclusive. Over the following months, prison officials gradually restored privileges, including visitation in April, modified day room access in June, full day room access in July and, finally, limited outdoor exercise on August 1, 2002. The next day, however, another riot occurred – this time involving Hispanic prisoners. Another lockdown ensued and full exercise privileges were not restored until April 1, 2003.

Noble, who undisputedly was not involved in the January 2002 riot, filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C § 1983, alleging violations of his Eighth Amendment right to outdoor exercise from January 9, 2002 to April 1, 2003, during the lockdowns.

The district court granted qualified immunity to prison officials for the second lockdown period commencing August 1, 2002, but denied it – “counterintuitively,” in the view of the Ninth Circuit – for the period in the immediate aftermath of the riot, faulting the officials for not justifying with “specific facts” the extension of lockdown restrictions following completion of their investigation on January 30, 2002.

The Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s order, with instructions to enter judgment on behalf of the prison officials. Relying principally on Norwood v. Vance, 591 F.3d 1062 (9th Cir. 2010), the appellate court held that a prisoner’s right to outdoor exercise during a lockdown imposed in the aftermath of a prison riot was not clearly established in 2002.

“[I]t would not have been clear to a reasonable officer that his or her conduct vis à vis the declaration of an emergency, the lockdown, or the curtailment of use of the exercise yard was unlawful in the situation he or she confronted,” the Ninth Circuit wrote. “If anything, the record demonstrates that the officials were continuously, prudently, and successfully looking out for the safety, security, and welfare of all involved, staff and prisoners alike.” See: Noble v. Adams, 636 F.3d 525 (9th Cir. 2011).

The Court of Appeals entered an amended, superseding opinion on August 2, 2011, which did not change the outcome of the ruling. See: Noble v. Adams, 646 F.3d 1138 (9th Cir. 2011), cert. denied.

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Related legal cases

Noble v. Adams

Noble v. Adams