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Fifth Circuit Upholds Qualified Immunity for Guard Pepper-Spraying Prisoner Without Provocation

On February 11, 2020, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a prison guard who pepper-sprayed a prisoner “for no reason” was entitled to qualified immunity.

Prince McCoy, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) prisoner, filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 federal civil rights lawsuit against Mr. Alamu, a TDCJ guard, alleging Alamu pepper-sprayed him in the face without provocation. The trial court granted Alamu’s motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity and McCoy filed a pro se appeal.

The Fifth Circuit noted that, taking the facts in the light most favorable to McCoy, Alamu pepper-sprayed McCoy, who was in an administrative segregation cell, after another prisoner in a nearby cell twice threw a liquid on Alamu. Alamu used a short, single burst and immediately initiated the Incident Command system over the radio so that additional staff and medical personnel arrived quickly. McCoy was then provided “copious amounts of water and fresh air” to decontaminate.

McCoy claimed that the trial court had improperly resolved disputed facts in Aamu’s favor, coming to the conclusion that Alamu’s actions did not constitute excessive force. The Fifth Circuit agreed and held that “McCoy’s version of the dispute facts demonstrates a constitutional violation.” The court noted that a guard can use pepper spray on a non-offending prisoner if doing so will help stifle a broader disturbance, but such was not the case here.

The court went on to analyze whether it was clearly established law that Alamu’s behavior violated the Constitution and held that it was not. Although the pepper spraying was unconstitutional, it was not “beyond debate” that an isolated, unprovoked single use of pepper spray was unconstitutional under current applicable case law. Therefore, Alamu was entitled to qualified immunity and the judgment of the trial court was affirmed.

A dissenting opinion noted that punching, striking with a baton, or using a Taser on a prisoner without provocation was a clearly established constitutional violation. Therefore, an unprovoked pepper spraying should be as well, since the lawfulness of the force “does not depend on the precise instrument used to apply it.” See: McCoy v. Alamu, 5th Cir., No. 18-40856

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Related legal case

McCoy v. Alamu