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Eighth Circuit: Jail Guards Denied Summary Judgment for Use of Force against Detainees

Eighth Circuit: Jail Guards Denied Summary Judgment for Use of Force against Detainees

by David Reutter

On April 24, 2014, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of summary judgment to jail guards accused of using excessive force on pre-trial detainees while quelling a riot. However, the appellate court also granted summary judgment to the sheriff, and a subsequent trial resulted in only nominal damages.

The five plaintiffs in the case were pre-trial detainees held at the Faulkner County Detention Center in Arkansas. They were housed in Pod B of Cell 309 on October 24, 2010 when other detainees in Pods A and C created a disturbance in the day room, stopping up a toilet, yelling and banging on the metal pod doors, and covering the main cell door with a mattress and the window on that door with paper.

The detainees in Pod B did not participate in the disturbance; to keep water from flowing into their pod, they placed a blanket in the doorway. One of the detainees in the day room ran past the pod door and pushed it shut, wedging the blanket under the door.

Guards responded to the riot armed with bean-bag guns. As they opened the door to the day room, guard Johnny Fowlkes threw a flash-bang grenade. The detainees in Pod B laid down on the floor or their bunks with their hands in front of them when they heard the grenade go off.

The blanket wedged under the door prevented the guards from entering Pod B. They could see the detainees in that pod lying submissively on the ground, and demanded that they open the door. Detainee Darrell Manning un-wedged the door after receiving assurances from the guards they would not shoot him.

Once the door was opened, Fowlkes, following an order from guard John Randall, threw a flash-bang grenade into Pod B. It detonated near detainee Cecil Edwards, Jr.’s face, burning him and causing permanent hearing damage. Manning and detainees Cleveland Smith and Allen Merrick were kicked in the face and ribs by guards who entered the pod. Merrick and detainee Kelcey Perry were shot with bean-bag guns. They were all then handcuffed and dragged into the day room to lie in the standing water from the disturbance; at no time did they resist or act aggressively.

The federal district court overseeing the subsequent civil rights action filed by Manning, Smith, Merrick, Perry and Edwards denied the guards’ motions for summary judgment. The guards then filed an interlocutory appeal on their qualified immunity defense.

The Eighth Circuit held the lower court had correctly denied summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity with respect to the plaintiffs’ excessive force claims. The facts in the record supported an Eighth Amendment violation, which also necessarily violated the Fourteenth Amendment right of pre-trial detainees to be free of any punishment.

“The guards employed a flash-bang grenade in close quarters, kicked the compliant detainees, and shot them with bean-bag guns,” the Court of Appeals noted. “These facts, if proved, could show that the guards did not apply this force in order to restore order or discipline but rather for the sole – and impermissible – purpose of inflicting unjustified harm on the detainees.”

Additionally, the appellate court found the guards were properly denied summary judgment on the failure-to-protect claims, as they “were aware that excessive force was being used against plaintiffs but did not intervene to protect them.” However, the Eighth Circuit held summary judgment should have been granted to then-Faulkner County Sheriff Karl Byrd, because he was not present at the jail on October 24, 2010 and therefore could not have used excessive force or intervened to stop it. The district court’s order was affirmed in part and reversed in part. See: Edward v. Byrd, 750 F.3d 728 (8th Cir. 2014).

Following remand, the case went to a jury trial in September 2014. Judgment was entered in favor of all the defendants except guard John Randall, against whom the jury awarded $1.00 in nominal damages and nothing in punitive damages.


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Related legal case

Edward v. Byrd