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Fifth Circuit Reinstates Texas Prisoner’s Excessive Force Claims

by Matt Clarke

On April 16, 2019, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated excessive force claims raised by a Texas prisoner in a federal civil rights suit. 

Michael Bourne was being held in a segregation cell when he asked to speak to a guard captain about some money that was taken from his trust fund account. To emphasize his request, he had jammed his food tray slot so it would not close and his door so it wouldn’t open.

In response, guards deployed a chemical agent in Bourne’s cell, then forced their way in and restrained him. The incident was video-recorded, but it was impossible to see into the darkened cell on the recording because a guard was in the doorway. 

Bourne filed a pro se complaint in federal court, alleging the guards had used excessive force against him after he was “handcuffed and shackled” on the cell floor and “not a threat.” He specifically accused the guards of “physically and sexually assaulting” him by punching him, squeezing and twisting his genitals, and inserting a finger into his anus. 

Bourne said Lt. Michael Gunnels sprayed him with an entire can of chemical agent, ordered guards to continue assaulting him once he had submitted, and failed to stop a guard from returning him to a chemically contaminated cell after he had been decontaminated. He claimed Sgt. Anthony Howard, Jr. punched him in the face, body slammed him to the floor, rubbed his face in the chemical agent that was on the floor and, while he was restrained, gouged his eyes and punched him in the head. 

Bourne further accused guard Ronald C. Weaver of punching him in the face after he was restrained and sticking a gloved finger coated in chemical agent into his anus, in retaliation for having filed a sexual harassment grievance against Weaver. He claimed guard Robert LaBlanc punched him in the body and face after he had been subdued and “grabbed his genitals through [his] boxers, and roughly squeezed and twisted them.” Lastly, Bourne said guards Ernest Price and Tajudefini punched him in the face and body after he was restrained while two other guards failed to intervene. 

Unsurprisingly, the defendants offered a different version of events, contending “that after entering the cell, they ‘used the minimum amount of force necessary to gain compliance,’ which bore ‘a direct relationship to the level of resistance presented by [Bourne] as well as the threat he presented due to his size and history of non-compliance.’”

The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment after finding that monetary damages for Bourne’s official capacity claims were precluded by the Eleventh Amendment; that his claims would imply that his disciplinary convictions for tampering with a cell door and creating a disturbance were invalid, which is barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994); and that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. The court also found no use of excessive force, and Bourne appealed. 

The Fifth Circuit held that Bourne’s excessive force claims “implicate neither the validity of his underlying conviction nor the duration of his sentence” and, therefore, were not precluded by Heck. It noted that Bourne’s prior behavior was not relevant to his claims that he was sexually and physically assaulted while lying restrained on his cell floor – a clear allegation of excessive use of force. Thus, when viewed in the light most favorable to Bourne, he had raised a disputed issue of material fact which precluded summary judgment. Since his allegations had not been “blatantly contradicted” or “utterly discredited” by the video recording or other evidence submitted by the defendants, summary judgment was inappropriate. 

The district court’s order was reversed and the case remanded for further consideration of Bourne’s excessive force claims. Following remand, his motions for costs and appointment of counsel were denied, and the suit remains pending. See: Bourne v. Gunnels, 921 F.3d 484 (5th Cir. 2019). 

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Related legal case

Bourne v. Gunnels