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Sixth Circuit Says Detroit Jail Guard Suspended for Failing To Check on Detainee Not Liable for His Death From Drugs Hidden in His Rectum

by David M. Reutter

On March 8, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held a guard at the Detroit Detention Center (DDC) who was suspended for failing to check on a pretrial detainee cannot be liable for his overdose death because the drugs were hidden in the detainee’s rectum.

Deandre Lipford was arrested on November 1, 2016, after Detroit police stopped a vehicle he was driving and found he had an outstanding felony arrest warrant. He was taken to DDC, where he was searched and no contraband was found. He denied being under the influence of drugs or carrying any medication.

Around 9:48 p.m., Lipford was placed in the video-arraignment room, a glass-walled room to hold detainees awaiting arraignment. He sat down and eventually nodded off. Around 11:02 p.m., he slid onto the floor and lay there until a guard found him unresponsive at 2:50 a.m. Efforts to revive him failed, and he was pronounced dead at a hospital an hour later. Hospital staff found narcotics — cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl — concealed in Lipford’s rectum. Because of that, the medical examiner ruled Lipford’s death an accidental overdose.

Guard Clyde J. Lewis was responsible for making rounds in DDC and for checking on detainees the night of Lipford’s overdose. DDC’s operating procedures required guards to make rounds every 30 minutes and said they must “physically open the cell doors and ensure that those detainees that are assigned to the cell are actually there.” Guards are also required to “check to make sure that every detainee is living and breathing.”

While Lewis made the required rounds, he admitted he never physically entered the video-arraignment room as required, much less performed any check on Lipford. He was suspended without pay for several days as a result.

Lipford’s estate sued, alleging the guard was liable for the detainee’s death by Lewis’ failure to follow DDC policy. But the district court granted the defendants summary judgment. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit agreed.

Citing its decision in Brawner v. Scott Cty., 14 F.4th 585 (6th Cir. 2021), the Court said there was no evidence that Lipford suffered an “objectively serious medical need” because there was no showing that anyone at DDC, including three other detainees in the video-arraignment rooms, knew Lipford was overdosing on concealed narcotics no one was aware he carried.

Without that, there was also no showing that Lewis’s actions were reckless, the Court said. “While Lewis’s actions might have been imprudent, they do not show that [he] was acting ‘in the face of an unjustifiably high risk’ that any reasonable officer would have known,” the Court explained. “Lewis made his rounds, looking into the video-arraignment room and monitoring the inmates inside. He had no reason to know that Lipford had concealed narcotics in his body.”

Moreover, a “failure to follow internal policies, without more,” does not equal “deliberate indifference,” the Court concluded, citing Winkler v. Madison County, 893 F.3d 877 (6th Cir. 2018).

As such, the grant of summary judgment to Defendants was affirmed. Lipford’s estate was represented by Bingham Farms attorneys John C. Kaplansky, of his eponymous firm, and Robert M. Sosin, of Alspector, Sosin & Noveck. See: Hyman v. Lewis, 27 F.4th 1233 (6th Cir. 2022). A request to rehear the case before the entire Sixth Circuit en banc was denied on April 6, 2022. See: Hyman v. Lewis, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 9311 (6th Cir.).

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Related legal cases

Hyman v. Lewis

Hyman v. Lewis