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Sheriff May Be Liable for Cell-Check Policy that Led to Teenager’s Suicide

In July 2010, a federal district court in Illinois held that a sheriff may be held liable in his official capacity for instituting a cell-check policy under which guards could not personally observe all detainees during overnight shifts, when that policy arguably contributed to the suicide of a distraught teenager.

On June 4, 2007, 17-year-old Austin Wells was arrested on a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Unable to post a $100 bail bond, Wells was taken to the Bureau County Jail where, five days later, he committed suicide.

One year later, Wells’ estate brought suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983, alleging violations of Wells’ civil rights while in custody. The defendants moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted in part and denied in part.

The Court dismissed the claims against the named defendants in their individual capacities, finding the evidence insufficient to establish that either the guards on duty or the sheriff had the requisite “subjective knowledge” that Wells was at substantial risk of committing suicide. But the court allowed the claims against the County and the Sheriff in his official capacity to proceed, finding an arguable link between Wells’ suicide on the one hand, and a Sheriff’s policy, on the other hand, which limited the ability of guards to perform cell checks during overnight shifts (when there was normally only one guard on duty).

Under the Sheriff’s policy, guards could only look into the cells that were visible from the guard walkway in the cellbock, unless a backup officer was present; as a result, Wells was not personally observed during cell checks from at least 11 PM on June 8, 2007, to 5 AM on June 9, 2007 (during which time he hung himself), because he was in one of the rear cells that was not visible from the guard walkway.

“To put it bluntly,” the Court held, “a policy directing that some detainees receive no personal observation for at least eight hours per day is unfathomable.” See: Estate of Wells v. Bureau County, 723 F. Supp. 2d 1061 (C.D. Ill. 2010).

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Related legal case

Estate of Wells v. Bureau County