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Tenth Circuit: No Qualified Immunity for Oklahoma Jail Guard Who Kneed Handcuffed Prisoner’s Face

by Matt Clarke

On July 11, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed denial of qualified immunity (QI) to an Oklahoma jail guard because a reasonable jury could find that kneeing a handcuffed pretrial detainee’s face “sufficed to show a legal violation.”

Jesse Wise had been held at Creek County Jail awaiting trial about a month in October 2018 when he complained of neck pain. Dissatisfied with the treatment he received in the medical unit, he became disruptive, ignoring orders from medical staff and guards and knocking over medical equipment as he threatened medical personnel. Wise was then thrown into an administrative segregation cell, where he attempted to cut a lump from his neck using a plastic “spork.” Guards moved him to a restraint chair, meeting no resistance; but when returned to a holding cell, he again tried to cut the lump from his neck and went back to the restraint chair.

When he was removed again, Wise’s hands were cuffed behind his back. He was ordered to remove his clothes so he could be placed in a “turtle suit” garment designed to prevent self-harm. But Wise resisted. Guards tried to remove his clothes, but Wise slid down the wall to a seated position to make that more difficult, his hands still cuffed behind his back. Jail guard Don Caffey rushed onto the scene, barreling past the two guards who were handling the situation, and delivered a knee-strike to Wise’s face.

After the incident, which was captured on surveillance video, Wise complained of pain, swelling and mental anguish. Creek County Sheriff Bret Bowling ordered an investigation, after which Undersheriff Joe Thompson concluded that Caffey should be “terminated immediately” and ordered “a separate criminal investigation” into the assault on Wise. Thompson later testified that the knee strike was “serious and dangerous behavior” and the “use of force violate[d] the Creek County Jail policies and procedures.” However, jail policy did not actually define how much force was to be used under various circumstances.

Meanwhile Wise filed a civil rights complaint in federal court for the Northern District of Oklahoma pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, accusing Caffey of using excessive force and claiming Sheriff Bowling had municipal and supervisory liability.

For his part, Caffey claimed he received no training at the jail other than job shadowing and online training. However, evidence showed he had received over 371 hours of training through the Council on Law Enforcement and Training, “a state organization that provides education and training to Oklahoma law enforcement,” the Court later recalled. Caffey also admitted he’d been trained to use “the minimum amount of force necessary.” Further, the jail had reprimanded Caffey 12 times for various infractions prior to his assault on Wise, though the only reprimand involving use of force was for improper use of a restraint chair.

Wise argued the knee strike was excessive force as a matter of law. Caffey and Bowling claimed QI. Both sides moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted only to Wise. Caffey and Bowling appealed separately, but the appeals were consolidated.

Reviewing the QI grant de novo, the Tenth Circuit used the factors set forth in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 576 U.S. 389 (2015) to determine the use of force against a handcuffed, seated, non-resistant prisoner may have been unreasonable. Further, at the time of the knee strike, it was clearly established in the Tenth Circuit that “officers may not continue to use force against a suspect who is effectively subdued,” the Court said, citing Perea v. Baca, 817 F.3d 1198 (10th Cir. 2016). Therefore, Caffey was not entitled to QI, and that part of the district court’s order was affirmed. But the Court came to a different conclusion regarding Sheriff Bowling.

The district court relied solely on Keith v. Koerner, 843 F.3d 833 (10th Cir. 2016) to deny the Sheriff summary judgement. But the Court was dubious that Keith “would have put Sheriff Bowling on notice that his conduct was a violation of clearly established law.” Rather it said that “Keith does not clearly establish that a sheriff or supervisor has violated the constitutional rights of a pretrial detainee when a subordinate officer uses blatantly unreasonable force,” even when he does so “in contravention to an allegedly ‘deficient’ use-of-force policy.” Therefore, Bowling was entitled to QI, and that part of the district court’s order was reversed. On appeal, Wise was represented by Tulsa attorneys John Warren and Donald E. Smolen II of Smolen Law, as well as Laura L. Hamilton of Hamilton Murphy Law and Lawrence R. Murphy, Jr. See: Wise v. Caffey, 72 F.4th 1199 (10th Cir. 2023).

The case returned to the district court, where a settlement conference failed to reach an agreement on November 8, 2023. The case remains pending, and PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Wise v. Caffey, USDC (N.D. Okla.), Case No. 4:20-cv-00067.  

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Related legal case

Wise v. Caffey