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NC Prisoner Survives Summary Judgment for Two Excessive Force Claims

The court’s January 4, 2021, opinion was issued in an appeal brought by North Carolina prisoner Willie James Dean, Jr. His civil rights complaint alleged an Eighth Amendment violations from two uses of force upon him on December 15, 2015 at Central Prison in Raleigh.

The first event occurred as Dean was being escorted back to his cell by guard Charles C. Hobgood after a visit to the barber. During the walk, Dean head-butted Hobgood, causing him to fall. Dean was subdued by guard Destination Gipson, and he ended up lying on his back with his arms handcuffed behind him. As Gipson’s knees were pressed into Dean’s chest and he was non-resistant, Hobgood got to his feet and administered a blast of pepper spray into Dean’s face that lasted longer than three seconds. Hobgood, however, said he only administered the blast after seeing Dean was still resisting.

Twelve other guards arrived and two of them held onto Dean’s handcuffs as an escort was being made to the nurse’s station for decontamination. That escort was caught on video.

Dean said he feared for his well-being, panicked, and head-butted one of the guards, Sgt. Johnnie Jones, holding the handcuffs. The video shows Dean was forced against the wall and pushed into a supply closet. Jones and several of the other guards then “maliciously beat” Dean. Jones, by contrast, said the “collective momentum” of the group caused them to fall into the closet and that Jones was injured when he accidentally fell in the closet.

Dean incurred a contusion and abrasion on the face, a closed fracture of the nasal bone, and subconjunctival hematoma. Weeks after the incident, Dean could not see out of his left eye. He underwent surgery to excise a sinus cyst that developed near the nasal fracture. When he filed his lawsuit, he still suffered from blurry vision, dizzy spells, and light sensitivity.

Dean, acting pro se, sued Hobgood and Jones. They moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted. It found the defendants lacked a sufficiently culpable state of mind to support an Eighth Amendment violation. Represented by pro bono counsel, Dean appealed.

The Fourth Circuit reversed. It found that a jury could conclude that Hobgood’s use of pepper spray came “only after any threat to safety had passed, and from that infer an impermissible retaliatory motive.”

As to the claim against Jones, “the video can be construed to show Jones and other officers holding Dean against the wall for a moment and then forcefully and intentionally pushing him into the closet.” The court continued, “the video clearly shows an officer making a kicking motion inside the doorframe, and one of Dean’s shoes flying out of the closet.” While Jones contended that Dean’s injuries occurred when he fell on his right side, the injuries were predominantly to the left side of his face. The jury could also conclude maliciousness from Jones’s repeated comment, “You done fucked up!” to Dean as the guards beat him.

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Related legal case

Dean v. Jones