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Fifth Circuit Remands Jail Suicide Dismissal for Reconsideration

by Mark Wilson

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal of a jail suicide suit. The lower court failed to analyze whether factual disputes existed as to whether unconstitutional jail conditions contributed to the detainee’s death.

Texas nurse, mother and wife, Diana LaRoy Simpson, struggled with depression and had attempted suicide. She told her husband that if she attempted suicide again, she would withdraw cash from an ATM, check into a motel and overdose on pills.

Simpson’s husband noticed a cash withdrawal from his bank account on May 18,2015. His wife had worked the nightshift at the hospital the night before, where she often slept after her shift because it was 75 miles from her home.

When Diana did not answer her cellphone, her husband called the hospital to see if she was sleeping there. He was told that she left after her shift. He then called several police agencies to report his wife missing and at suicide risk. He put a photograph of his wife’s vehicle on Facebook, asking anyone who saw it to contact authorities.

A woman who saw the Facebook plea and recognized Simpson’s vehicle parked on a road in Graham, Texas called police. Officer Kyle Ford found Diana sleeping in the driver’s seat at about 5 p.m., on May 19, 2015. When Ford woke her, Diana responded slowly, had a hard time keeping her eyes open and her speech was slurred.

When asked if she had been drinking or taking medication, Diana said she had a drink the night before to help her sleep. She denied taking medication or having a medical condition.

Ford called medics to examine Simpson. When medic Jared Cook asked if she was depressed or wanted to hurt herself, Simpson said “no.” Cook determined that Simpson was “impaired but not altered.”

Seeing a pill bottle on the floorboard, Ford obtained Simpson’s consent to search her vehicle. Simpson walked unsteadily toward the ambulance to wait for Ford to complete his search. She then told Cook that she had taken two Benadryl to help her sleep. She fell asleep as Cook attempted to conduct a field sobriety test known as the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, which tests a person’s ability to track an object with their eyes. Simpson told Cook she did not want to go to the hospital.

While searching Simpson’s vehicle, Ford found numerous partially empty medication blister packs and several open beer cans. Simpson admitted to taking all the medication that was missing from the blister packs. Ford asked Simpson if she was trying to hurt herself. She said she was not and again declined to go to the hospital. Ford then arrested her for public intoxication.

Learning that his wife had been arrested, Mr. Simpson called the police station. He told them she was a suicide risk and asked them to take her to the hospital. He was told she had been examined by medical personnel and had refused to go to the hospital. He then called the jail once before she arrived there. He told them that a BOLO--“be on the lookout”--report had been issued for his wife because she was suicidal. He was told an ambulance was at the scene.

After Diana was booked into jail at about 6:30 p.m., her husband called the jail again at about 8 p.m. He “begged” them to take his wife to a hospital and requested that the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation (MHMR) examine her. Jail staff told him that MHMR would not see her until she was sober, she was just drunk and needed to sleep it off.

During the booking process, Diana told Jailer Rich that she was not depressed or thinking about killing herself. She falsely declared that she had never attempted suicide. Simpson was then locked in a holding cell.

It is unclear how often jail staff checked on Simpson. At about midnight, Deputy Wacaster walked Officer Post to Simpson’s holding cell and told him to look through the cell window. Post saw Simpson lying on the floor, wearing nothing but a tee-shirt. They left her like that. Simpson was unresponsive when Rich entered the holding cell at 2:40 a.m. to finish Simpson’s booking process. She was transported to a hospital where she was pronounced dead. An autopsy found that the cause of death was mixed drug intoxication and the manner of death was “consistent with and highly suspicious of suicide.”

Simpson’s husband and children brought federal suit against the county. They alleged alternative theories of County liability for her death: (1) unconstitutional conditions of confinement; and (2) “episodic acts and omissions” of jail staff. The district court granted defendants' summary judgment on all claims.

The Fifth Circuit reversed. “Because the district court focused only on the plaintiffs’ claim that episodic acts and omissions of the jail personnel could be imputed to the County, it did not analyze their unconstitutional conditions of confinement claim at all,” the court found. Accordingly, it remanded for the lower court to consider “whether there is any genuine issue of material fact that Mrs. Simpson was subjected to the County’s unconstitutional conditions of confinement.” See: Sanchez v. Young County, F.3d (5th Cir. 2017).

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Related legal case

Sanchez v. Young County