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Qualified Immunity Granted on Claim of Sleep Deprivation From Guard Noise During Suicide-Prevention Checks in California

The court’s November 20, 2020 opinion was issued in an appeal brought by Pelican Bay State Prison guards and officials who were alleged to have violated the Eighth Amendment rights of prisoner Jorge A. Rico. He was remanded to Pelican Bay’s Special Housing Unit (SHU), where he had been placed initially for the attempted murder of another prisoner.

On August 3, 2015, Guard One was implemented at Pelican Bay. Guard One was ordered by the court overseeing a class action lawsuit of Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, which challenged conditions of confinement in California prisons, requiring welfare checks of SHU prisoners every half hour as an effort to prevent suicides.

“The system functions like a time clock for night watchman,” wrote the Ninth Circuit. It requires guards to touch hand-held metal pipe to a disc attached to a cell door as the guard peers inside a cell to assess the prisoner’s welfare. An electronic sound is emitted to verify recordation of the time of observation.

Rico alleged that he had only 15 minutes of uninterrupted noise an hour because each round took 15 minutes and the sounds from other pods could be heard in his cell. His grievances on the issue were denied. He filed his civil rights action on August 2, 2016. The district court granted qualified immunity to five supervisory defendants because they were carrying out a facially valid court order. Qualified immunity was denied to nine defendants by finding Rico had a clearly established right to be free of sleep deprivation caused by excessive noise. An interlocutory appeal ensued.

The Ninth Circuit went “straight to the second prong of the qualified immunity analysis: whether existing precedent placed the question ‘beyond debate’ that every reasonable official would have understood that his specific actions violated a clearly established right.” According to the court, it was mandated to examine the facts of what caused Rico’s sleep deprivation, which “reveal[ed] that the challenged noise arose from activity that was inherently noisy in a facility the very construction of which made difficult quietly conducting round-the-clock welfare checks that defendants were ordered by the Coleman court to perform.”

Based on the facts Rico alleged, the Ninth Circuit concluded that “existing caselaw did not provide insight into the lawfulness of creating noise while conducting court-ordered suicide-prevention welfare checks in a maximum-security facility built of concrete, metal, and steel.”

The caselaw presented by Rico dealt only with sleep deprivation from constant illumination or noise from other prisoners.

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Related legal case

Rico v. Ducart