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Guard Violates Eighth Amendment by Brandishing Knife and Threatening Prisoner’s Life

Michigan prisoner Fletcher Darnell Small alleged in his 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint that on several occasions “Officer Brock brandished a knife, threatened to kill Small, and motioned in a manner suggesting how Brock would use the knife to kill Small.” Those actions allegedly caused Small to seek “treatment and counseling” for “paranoia, mental distress, [and] psychological distress.”

The district court dismissed the action for failure to state a claim. After it denied Small’s motion to alter or amend the judgment, Small, acting pro se, appealed.

The Sixth Circuit noted it had never addressed the circumstances as Small presented. “[A] prisoner has ‘the right to be free from the terror of instant and unexpected death at the whim’ of his jailors,” wrote the court. “A threat of loss, when made credible by the aggressive brandishing of a deadly weapon, is beyond the type of ‘unpleasant experience’ that prisoners must endure.”

Citing Hudson v. McMillan, 503 U.S. 1 (1992), the court found that neither the force threatened by Brock nor the resulting paranoia and psychological distress Small alleged was de minimis. It, however, said its holding did “not mean that Small’s right was clearly established for the purpose of qualified immunity.”

The Sixth Circuit noted that unlike other circuits, it has not yet adopted a rule that allows a court to sua sponte dismiss a prisoner or indigent plaintiff’s claim if it believes it is barred by qualified immunity. In finding the district court should make the qualified immunity decision in the first instance, the Sixth Circuit noted it has found that a clearly established right can be based on unanimous out-of-circuit precedent. Brown v. Battle Creek Police Dep’t., 844 F.3d 556 (6th Cir. 2016).

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Related legal case

Small v. Brock