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Sixth Circuit Vacates Denial of Qualified Immunity; Each Defendant’s Conduct Must be Individually Evaluated

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated a district court’s denial of qualified immunity because an individualized inquiry into the defendants’ role during an illegal body cavity search was not conducted.

Felix Charles Booker was a passenger in a vehicle pulled over by Oak Ridge, Tennessee police officer Daniel R. Steakley on February 12, 2010. Steakley suspected that Booker was “attempting to conceal something” because of the way he was “moving around.” During a search of the vehicle, a small plastic bag containing something that looked like crushed marijuana was found on the floorboard where Booker was seated. He was arrested for marijuana possession and transported to jail.

Guard Jerry Shelton strip-searched Booker due to Steakley’s suspicion that he had hidden contraband on his body. Nothing was found.

A supervisor and prosecutor then directed Shelton to take Booker to a hospital for a body cavity search. No search warrant was sought or obtained.

At the hospital, Dr. Michael LaPaglia performed three rectal searches. The first digital search was unsuccessful because Booker contracted his rectal muscles so LaPaglia could not penetrate him. LaPaglia ordered a nurse to inject Booker with ten milligrams of Midazolam, a sedative and muscle relaxant that has been used in botched executions in multiple states.

During a second digital rectal exam, Dr. LaPaglia felt a foreign object but could not remove it because Booker again contracted his rectal muscles. LaPaglia then administered 20 milligrams of a sedative called Etomidate and 125 milligrams of Succinylcholine, a paralytic agent. He also inserted a breathing tube to ensure that Booker did not stop breathing. Ultimately, LaPaglia recovered a white object from Booker’s rectum.

A federal grand jury charged Booker with one count of possession with intent to deliver more than five grams of cocaine base; the trial court denied his motion to suppress evidence seized during the illegal rectal searches.

While the criminal case was pending, Booker sued Shelton, Steakley, Dr. LaPaglia and others in state court, alleging that the rectal searches were unconstitutional. The defendants removed the case to federal court, which then stayed the action pursuant to Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994).

Booker was ultimately convicted but the Sixth Circuit reversed in 2013, concluding that the rectal searches “shocked the conscience” and were “‘unreasonable’ for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment.” See: United States v. Booker, 728 F.3d 535 (6th Cir. 2013).

The district court then lifted the stay in the civil action and held that neither Steakley nor Shelton were entitled to qualified immunity. “In a few short sentences, the district court addressed both defendants’ qualified immunity arguments,” the Court of Appeals observed.

Shelton filed an interlocutory appeal challenging the denial of qualified immunity. “The district court ambiguously analyzed Shelton’s qualified immunity defense,” the Sixth Circuit found. “The court conflated both Shelton and Steakley’s liability, analyzing the two defendants together.”

“Shelton’s specific role in the search and his relationship to LaPaglia and the other officers involved in the hospital search cannot be determined on the present record,” the appellate court held. “A remand here will result in the district court developing the factual record.” Following remand, Steakley, LaPaglia and the City of Oak Ridge were dismissed by stipulation of the parties; the case remains pending with a trial scheduled for November 1, 2016 against the remaining defendants. See: Booker v. LaPaglia, 617 Fed.Appx. 520 (6th Cir. 2015).

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Related legal case

Booker v. LaPaglia