Qualified Immunity

Prison Guard Who Hid While Inmate Raped a Nurse Cannot Be Sued, Federal Court Rules

The 7th Circuit said the guard is protected by qualified immunity.

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A federal court has ruled that a prison guard who flouted protocol and unshackled an inmate, who then terrorized a local hospital, cannot be sued in connection with the incident.

Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Judge Frank H. Easterbrook of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit Court ruled that while the officer, Shawn Loomis, is a "feckless coward," current case law has not "clearly established that permitting a prisoner to escape violates the Constitution." Loomis is thus protected by qualified immunity, a legal doctrine which effectively holds that public servants can only face civil suits if the conduct in question has explicitly been ruled unconstitutional in an earlier case.

On May 8, 2017, Tywon Salters, an inmate at the Kane County Jail, drank hydrogen peroxide and ate a jail-issued sandal in an apparent suicide attempt. He was then transferred to the Delnor Community Hospital and put under Loomis's supervision. Loomis unshackled Salters on multiple occasions, leaving him unsupervised and allowing him to walk around the hospital without restriction. On May 13, during one such instance, Loomis removed Salters's restraints for at least 30 minutes; the inmate then stole Loomis's handgun, which was not holstered. Loomis failed to subdue Salters, and did not alert hospital security personnel of the situation. Instead, Loomis ran and hid in a closet.

Salters then forced a nurse to remove her clothes so he could put them on. He then took another nurse to a hospital decontamination room, where he raped her at gunpoint. After a standoff with a SWAT team, Salters was shot and killed.

Victoria Weiland and Deanna Chrones, who were patients at the hospital at the time of the incident, sued Loomis, arguing that they have suffered post-traumatic stress and anxiety as a result of Loomis' negligence. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, sided with Weiland and Chrones.

Last month, the 7th Circuit overturned that ruling. In his opinion, Judge Easterbrook rejected Weiland and Chrones' claims that Loomis violated their 14th Amendment rights, observing that "the Due Process Clause generally does not condemn official negligence."

But the bulk of Judge Easterbrook's opinion centered on whether or not Loomis should enjoy qualified immunity. At the heart of the matter is a 7th Circuit precedent known as DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services (1988), in which the mother of a four-year-old boy sued the government for failing to remove him from his father's custody. Joshua DeShaney, the child, was rendered mentally retarded after he was repeatedly beaten by his dad. In that case, the 7th Circuit ruled that the government is not required to shield people from private actors.

Yet under the "state-created danger exception," a principle affirmed by the 7th Circuit in Wilson-Trattner v. Campbell (2017), civil servants can be held liable for actively increasing the danger the public faces. That's the principle that led the district court to rule that Loomis should not be granted qualified immunity. According to Judge Amy J. St. Eve, the women suing the prison guard "sufficiently alleged that Defendant Loomis' affirmative actions propelled them into a danger that they would not have otherwise faced" when he carelessly released Salters from restraints, and made no effort to stop his attack.

This is too general, ruled Judge Easterbrook, who countered that qualified immunity must be granted unless constitutional rights have been "defined with specificity." He noted that "other litigants have argued that the Constitution requires guards to prevent escapes," but "every appellate court that has considered the possibility has rejected it as incompatible with DeShaney."

"The search is for an appropriate level of generality, not the most particular conceivable level," Easterbrook wrote. "And the level of generality is appropriate when it establishes the rule in a way that tells a public employee what the Constitution requires in the situation that employee faces."

The 7th Circuit's decision highlights the cyclical nature of qualified immunity, in that it requires near-identical precedent in order to hold civil servants accountable.

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