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Fourth Circuit Refuses to Hold North Carolina Liable After State Prisoner Murders Guard

by Harold Hempstead

On November 17, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that no civil rights violation had been committed by North Carolina officials in the murder of a guard at the hands of a state prisoner at Bertie Correction Institution (BCI).

After the guard, Sgt. Meggan L. Callahan, wrote a disciplinary report for the prisoner, Craig Wissink, on April 26, 2017, the prisoner “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, Court records recalled.

Callahan’s father, John Callahan then filed suit in federal court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, alleging the state violated her civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by creating the danger that resulted in her death.

Specifically 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,” yet “no one at BCI took any action to address this warning and Wissink remained in medium custody [status].”

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, the complaint added, and Callahan was the only one of those who was fully trained.

The district court dismissed the complaint for failing to allege facts that would support a substantive due process claim based on the “state-created danger” doctrine. Callahan appealed.

Taking up the case then, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause “protects individual liberty against certain government actions regardless of the fairness of the procedures used to implement them,” quoting Collins v. City of Harker Heights, 503 U.S. 115 (1992).

But “a plaintiff asserting a § 1983 substantive due process claim must allege both the deprivation of his life, liberty or property interest by a state actor, and that the deprivation of this interest was ‘arbitrary in the constitutional sense,’ the Court continued, citing Equity in Athletics, Inc. v. Dep’t of Educ., 639 F.3d 91 (4th Cir. 2011).

Moreover, the Court said it had already “warned against ‘constitutionalizing’ state tort law through the Due Process Clause,” pointing to its decision in Slaughter v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, 682 F.3d 317 (4th Cir. 2012).

Since a due process violation happens only when a state employee deprives a person of life, liberty or property without due process of law, the Court said that when someone who is not a state actor infringes on those interests, there is generally no due process violation, as held in Graves v. Lioi, 930 F.3d 307 (4th Cir. 2019).

The due process clause “is phrased as a limitation on the State’s power to act, not as a guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security,” the Court said, citing DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1989).

The Fourth Circuit recognizes two exceptions to this under the “state-created danger doctrine,” the first when a “special relationship” is found to exist between a state actor and the non-state actor who committed the injury. That exception was not raised in this case, though, since it applies only in a custodial context and not an employment context, the Court said, pointing again to both Collins and Slaughter.

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 continued, quoting Doe v. Rosa, 795 F.3d 429 (4th Cir. 2015). But that “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 said, citing Graves once more.

Thus 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 said. Here, when Wissink was clearly the only person directly responsible for Callahan’s death, any related staff and training decisions or even any 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.

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

Callahan then petitioned the entire Fourth Circuit to rehear the case en banc, but that petition was denied on December 14, 2021. See: Callahan v. N.C. Dep’t of Pub. Saf., 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 36908 (4th Cir.).

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Related legal case

Callahan v. N.C. Dep’t of Pub. Saf.