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Court Declines to Seal Records in Michigan Prisoner’s Excessive Force Case

by David M. Reutter

A Michigan federal district court initially held that a prisoner’s allegation that a guard’s use of a Taser constituted excessive force stated a viable claim. The court also denied the defendants’ motion to seal evidence in the case, though the suit was later dismissed.

Prisoner Gregory Graham was attacked by another prisoner on July 25, 2014 while at the Oaks Correctional Facility. Guard Douglas Murtland wrote a misconduct report charging Graham with fighting.

The hearing officer rejected that claim, as video evidence showed Graham was attacked by a shank-wielding prisoner while his hands were full. The hearing officer was “unconvinced” that Graham “was fighting back versus protecting himself.”

Graham alleged in his civil rights complaint that “Murtland used the Taser on him without warning or justification and that he continues to suffer eye, neck, and back pain from the incident nearly eighteen months after the fact.”

The district court found his factual allegations were sufficient to meet the subjective and objective components of an excessive force claim. Thus, the court allowed that claim to proceed, though it dismissed claims for failure to protect and denial of access to the courts, the latter being predicated on withholding evidence to prevent him from pursuing his lawsuit.

At the summary judgment stage, the claims appear to have changed, as it was alleged that guard Matthew Turner had deployed the Taser rather than Murtland. The defendants moved to seal the video of the incident, video from the guard who deployed the Taser and the Michigan Department of Corrections’ use of force policy.

The district court found the defendants’ “talismanic invocation of ‘security,’ in the absence of relevant evidence or focused argument is simply insufficient to overcome the ‘strong presumption’ that materials submitted in support of a motion for summary judgment be available to the public.”

The court’s July 19, 2019 order denied the defendants’ motion to seal. Just over two months later, however, in September 2019, the court adopted a magistrate judge’s report and recommendation and granted summary judgment to the defendants, dismissing the case.

“Plaintiff’s claim involving the use of a taser must be analyzed under the Supreme Court cases authorizing appropriately limited use of force against prisoners,” the district court wrote. “This analysis, furthermore, must be made in the context of the constant admonitions by the Supreme Court regarding the deference that courts must accord to prison or jail officials as they attempt to maintain order and discipline within dangerous institutional settings.”

The court concluded that “The undisputed record ... demonstrates a classic case where a corrections officer needed to respond to a crisis situation in the heat of the moment. And nothing in the video or the rest of the record demonstrates a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Defendant Turner acted maliciously or sadistically for the purpose of unjustifiable infliction of pain and suffering when he deployed the taser.” See: Graham v. Turner, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Mich.), Case No. 1:16-cv-00149-RJJ-PJG; 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162946. 

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Related legal case

Graham v. Turner