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Pepper-spraying Sleeping Prisoner Unconstitutional, but Case Loses at Trial

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that “using a chemical agent in an attempt to wake a sleeping prisoner, without apparent necessity and in the absence of mitigating circumstances, violates clearly established law.” The ruling came in an interlocutory appeal filed by a Michigan prison guard.

Prisoner Nicholas Roberson filed a civil rights action alleging that former Sgt. James Torres violated the Eighth Amendment when he sprayed him with a chemical agent on March 13, 2009 while he was sleeping. Torres later issued Roberson a major-misconduct ticket for failure to comply with an order, stating he ordered Roberson to back up to the cell door to be placed in restraints.

Roberson claimed he didn’t hear the order because he was asleep and covered by a blanket. Torres then sprayed a chemical agent into the cell. The district court denied Torres’ claim of qualified immunity, finding a genuine issue of fact existed as to whether Roberson was sleeping at the time he was sprayed, which would constitute excessive force.

After finding it had jurisdiction to review the case, the Sixth Circuit considered Torres’ argument that any factual findings by a prison hearing officer in a major-misconduct hearing are to be accorded preclusive effect. The Court of Appeals said such a reading of its decision in Peterson v. Johnson, 714 F.3d 905 (6th Cir. 2013) was overbroad. Rather, it requires a “case-by-case analysis of surrounding circumstances,” and the district court was directed to conduct such an analysis on remand.

Turning to the use of chemical agents, the appellate court rejected Torres’ position that spraying Roberson was necessary to restore order. It noted that “Torres undoubtedly had other means of waking Roberson at his disposal – or at least reasonably assuring that he was awake before having to resort to a chemical agent or physical force.” It found the law was clearly established on that point, and the district court’s denial of qualified immunity was therefore affirmed. See: Roberson v. Torres, 770 F.3d 398 (6th Cir. 2014).

Following remand the case proceeded to a jury trial in January 2016, and a verdict was entered in favor of Torres after the jury decided he did not violate Roberson’s rights under the Eighth Amendment. Roberson was represented by the Detroit law firm of Bodman PLC. 

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Related legal cases

Roberson v. Torres

Peterson v. Johnson