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Fourth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of South Carolina Prisoner’s Suit Over Safekeeper Status

by David M. Reutter

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a grant of summary judgment to officials who allegedly denied a pretrial detainee substantive and procedural due process when placing him in safekeeper status.

Dustin Robert Williamson, who was 20 at the time, was being held at South Carolina’s Barnwell County jail awaiting trial on November 22, 2013 when he wrote a letter to Sheriff Ed Carroll that “ranted against several individuals, confessed to murder, and proclaimed the innocence of another man. It also threatened violence against ten law enforcement officers and Judge Early.” During an interview, Williamson reportedly became “combative,” repeated his threats and struck a guard.

Jail officials decided “that Mr. Williamson needed to be placed in ‘safekeeper’ status” in the custody of the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC). The safekeeper program, established by statute, requires the governor’s approval. To qualify, it must be shown that a pretrial detainee: “(1) is a high escape risk (2) exhibits extremely violent and uncontrollable behavior and/or (3) must be removed from the county facility.” Williamson was approved for safekeeper status by then-Governor Nikki Haley, and placed into SCDC’s custody on November 25, 2013.

For the next three-and-a-half years he remained “locked down 24 hours a day” and was limited to interactions with prison staff and his attorney. His safekeeper status was renewed every 90 days, approximately 13 times. The long-term isolation caused mental health issues, and by May 2015 Williamson was taking psychotropic medication for the first time in his life.

On June 15, 2017, a jury acquitted Williamson on a murder charge. He pleaded guilty to armed robbery in February 2018 and was sentenced to time served and five years’ probation. The remaining charges were dismissed.

Williamson filed suit alleging the safekeeper status had imposed punitive conditions on him without notice or a hearing. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, finding they were entitled to qualified immunity, but the Fourth Circuit reversed on December 21, 2018.

The appellate court found material facts in dispute that required resolution by a jury. As to the substantive due process claim, a jury could find “that three-and-a-half years of solitary confinement was excessive for an isolated incident, and was therefore punitive within the meaning” of Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979). The jury could decide the confinement infringed upon his liberty interest to remain free of punishment, or find it was administrative and thus required “notice, a hearing, and a written explanation” of the resulting decision “to impose punishment on a pretrial detainee.” 

As Williamson received none of those protections, a jury could find his procedural due process rights had been violated, too. Further, the Court of Appeals noted Williamson’s good behavior following the incident at the jail “casts substantial doubt on the renewals of his safekeeper status.”

As such, the Court held that Sheriff Carroll and SCDC director Bryan P. Stirling were not entitled to qualified immunity. The district court’s grant of summary judgment was vacated as to Carroll and Stirling, and affirmed as to the other defendants. The case remains pending on remand. See: Williamson v. Stirling, 912 F.3d 154 (4th Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Williamson v. Stirling