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$35,000 Awarded to Federal Prisoner in Kentucky Who Accused Guards of Using Excessive Force

by Benjamin Tschirhart

In July 2019, Jonathan Lee Smith was a prisoner at the U.S. Penitentiary near Kentucky’s Big Sandy River, when he got in a fight with another prisoner and guards responded. That led to allegations that two of them used excessive force against the prisoner: Lt. Terry Melvin and a fellow lieutenant named Barker.

Smith filed a claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) in 2020, as well as a suit in federal court for the Eastern District of Kentucky the same year. In that he alleged civil rights violations by the two guards, as well as administrative and medical staff at the prison. Specifically, his complaint said that Barker “shot him in the leg” and Melvin “retaliated against him and put him in [belly chain] restraints that were far too tight.”

In addition, Smith claimed that Nurse Plumley, Lt. Holcomb and Lt. Mays were deliberately indifferent to his medical needs and “failed to perform adequate restraint checks, intentionally ignoring his cries for help and doing nothing about the belly chain that was causing Smith deep cuts, blistering, and bruising.”

Moreover, Smith added claims against guards Adams, Duff and Cpt. Altizer , plus Assistant Warden Garza; they allegedly witnessed the other two guards use excessive force but did not intervene. As his complaint said, they “ignored Smith and left him to suffer.”

In April 2020, after communicating with Regional Counsel for the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), Smith accepted an offer of $35,000 to settle his FTCA claim. Because that was duplicative of his lawsuit, the Court then dismissed his civil complaint on March 5, 2021. See: Smith v. Melvin, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 41635 (E.D. Ky.).

After receiving the settlement, though, Smith was informed by his home state, Nevada, that he had a child support obligation in arrears. The State of California had apparently issued an order in 2017 to establish a $12,376 obligation, of which Smith was never made aware, growing by $238 monthly. A state district court then ordered his account debited for the balance due, $19,811.12.

Smith filed another pro se suit in federal court for the District of Nevada, seeking to force Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson (D) to return the money “with interest.” But though he “couched his claim as one ‘for a reparitive [sic] injunction,’” the Court said, “the true nature of Smith’s suit is monetary damages, and the defendants are immune from it.” His claim was dismissed on July 12, 2022. See: Smith v. Clark Cty. DA, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 123670 (D. Nev.).

However, Smith also appealed the seizure of his money to the Nevada Court of Appeals, where judges C.J. Gibbons, J. Tao and J. Bulla heard the case. Smith’s Motion to Void Enforcement of Child Support Order alleged that he was never made aware of the proceedings in California, nor of the Nevada order from 2017, so his due process rights were therefore violated under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

On October 31, 2022, the Appellate Court agreed with Smith. Failing to serve him with notice of the decisions and his subsequent obligation violated his due process rights, the Court said, adding that the district court’s failure to address this was “especially egregious.” The case was remanded for further proceedings in keeping with the Appellate Court decision. But the Court warned Smith that the disposition “does not preclude the continued enforcement of the California support order by any means permitted under Nevada or federal law.” See: Smith v. State Div. of Welfare & Supportive Servs., 2022 Nev. App. Unpub. LEXIS 487.

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