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Seventh Circuit: Wisconsin Jail Officials’ Response to Detainee’s Suicide Risk Objectively Reasonable

by Mark Wilson

On July 15, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a lower court’s conclusion that a detainee’s attempted suicide was not caused by objective unreasonableness of jail staff.

Wisconsin police arrested Zachary Pulera during the early morning of April 21, 2012. He appeared drunk but not suicidal. He was locked in a temporary holding cell at the jail.

While initially cooperative at 2 a.m., three hours later Pulera was standing on a bench, pounding on the door and shouting. Still, guards did not see any evidence that Pulera was suicidal.

During the booking process a few hours later, Pulera was screened with a standard questionnaire asking about his medical and mental health history. Nothing indicated that he was suicidal. He was assigned to general population housing.

During the course of his day and a half in general population, Pulera made medical requests three times for his prescription medications: Clonazepam was apparently prescribed for anti-anxiety purposes. Tramadol, an opioid pain medication, was used for chronic back pain. Pulera’s brother had brought the medications to the jail. A nurse reviewed the bottles, noting that the prescription had been refilled the previous day, but the bottles contained only 34 of 60 Clonazepam tablets, and 81 of 120 Tramadol tablets. The nurse did not inquire where the missing pills were.

About 30 minutes later, the nurse called Dr. Karen Butler, the jail’s medical director who visited the jail Tuesdays. Given the prescription discrepancy, which she believed might be a sign of abuse, making future dosages dangerous, Butler refused to give Pulera the medications.

At about 8 p.m., Pulera claimed his heart hurt, he couldn’t breathe, and he needed his meds or could die. Guards reported that Pulera wanted his medication but was not in distress at 9 p.m.

On Sunday afternoon, Pulera sent another medical request, claiming he could not eat, sleep or breathe. He said he was dizzy, vomiting, needed his blood pressure taken and needed his Clonazepam because his mother and brother had just died.

Nurses checked Pulera’s vitals at 6 p.m. The results were normal. There was no evidence that Pulera was in distress or peril.

At about 1:45 a.m. April 23, 2012, Pulera attempted to hang himself with a bed sheet. Guards cut him down within minutes. Jail staff gave him oxygen and his vitals improved, but he remained unresponsive. He was taken to a hospital.

Pulera recovered and brought federal suit against jail staff, alleging that they were deliberately indifferent to his suicide risk and medical needs. The district court granted Defendants summary judgment.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Given that the incident occurred before a probable cause finding, the Court determined that the Fourth Amendment’s “objective reasonableness” standard controlled. See: Currie v. Chhabra, 728 F3d 626, 629-30 (?111 Cir. 2013).

Applying that standard, the Court agreed with the lower court that all Defendants satisfied the “objective reasonableness” standard.

“It is unfortunate that Pulera attempted to kill himself and fortunate that he did not succeed,” the Court declared. “That a tragedy almost happened under the watch of jail officers, though, does not mean the officers are responsible. All that one can expect — and all the Constitution demands — is that officials respond reasonably to the situation presented.” See: Pulera v. Sarzant, et al. _ F3d _ (7th Cir. 2020).

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