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Fourth Circuit Dooms Suit Filed After North Carolina Guard Murdered by State Prisoner

by Harold Hempstead

On November 17, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that a substantive due process claim based on the state-created danger doctrine did not apply to Sgt. Meggan L. Callahan, who was murdered by prisoner Craig Wissink at Bertie Correction Institution (BCI) in North Carolina four years earlier.

On April 26, 2017, Callahan wrote Wissink a disciplinary report for failing to follow a direct order. “Later that same day,” the Court recalled, “Wissink started a fire in a trashcan in his unit[,]threw boiling liquid in… Callahan’s face [and then] grabbed the fire extinguisher” from Callahan that she used to put out the fire and beat her to death with it.

Callahan’s father, John Callahan, filed suit in federal court for the Eastern District of North Carolina under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging a violation of his late daughter’s substantive due process rights based on the doctrine that the state is liable for a danger it creates.

The complaint contended “that approximately a week before…Callahan’s murder, Wissink [a murderer serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole] warned BCI officials that he had homicidal thoughts and needed help for his mental health conditions…[but] … no one at BCI took any action to address this warning.”

Furthermore, on the day of the murder, only three of the four guards required by BCI policies and procedures to be posted in Callahan’s unit were on duty, and Callahan was the only one who was fully trained.

The district court dismissed the complaint for failing to allege facts supporting a due process claim based on the state-created danger doctrine. The Fourth Circuit agreed.

First the Court explained that constitutionalizing state tort law through the Due Process Clause is prohibited, citing Collins v. City of Harker Heights, 503 U.S. 115 (1992), as well as Slaughter v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, 682 F.3d 317 (4th Cir. 2012).

Rather, the Court said, a due process violation happens when a state employee deprives a person of life, liberty or property without due process of law and generally does not happen when a non-state employee infringes on those interests, citing Graves v. Lioi, 930 F.3d 307 (4th Cir. 2019), and also DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1989).

But the Fourth Circuit recognizes two exceptions to the state-created danger doctrine.

The first is a “special relationship” exception, which was not raised in this case and applies only in a custodial context, not an employment context.

The second exception applies where “the state actor directly ‘created or increased the risk’ of the harm to the victim and…did so directly through affirmative acts,” the Court said,m citing Doe v. Rosa, 795 F.3d 429 (4th Cir. 2015).

“It is a ‘narrow exception to the general rule that state actors are not liable [under the Due Process Clause] for harm caused by third parties,’” the Court continued, quoting Graves.The opinions in Doe and Graves illustrate the Fourth Circuit’s approach to this doctrine and make it “clear that the state must create the direct danger that causes the injury or death.”

The Court explained that Wissink was clearly the only person directly responsible for Callahan’s death and that staff and training decisions and even an alleged failure to respond to Wissink’s warning were neither the “immediate interactions” called for in Doe nor the “direct cause” of the injuries required by Graves.

Thus the judgment of the district court was affirmed. Callahan was represented in his suit by attorney William E. Boyle of Knott & Boyle, PLLC, in Raleigh. See: Callahan v. N.C. Dep’t of Pub. Saf., 18 F.4th 142 (4th Cir. 2021).

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