Qualified Immunity in the Spotlight at the 10th Circuit

Court will hear oral arguments about an inmate’s treatment during pretrial detention

10th Circuit Court of Appeals rams
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals recently allowed two cases alleging violations of prisoners’ religious rights to proceed. / Law Week File

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments Tuesday in an inmate’s case that asserts treatment during time he spent in the county jail was unconstitutional punishment. The district court declined to grant qualified immunity to the five members of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department listed as defendants on several claims, but the scope of the case’s impact will depend on how the appellate court decides the case, the plaintiff’s attorneys said.

Terrell Hubbard, now an inmate in the Colorado Department of Corrections, sued five officials in Lincoln County claiming they violated his due process rights while he was in the jail by disciplining him and putting him in lockdown without a hearing. Overall, in six total claims, Hubbard said the officials’ treatment of him violated his Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and 14th Amendment rights. 

Hubbard brought claims against Sheriff Tom Nestor, Capt. Michael Yowell, Deputies Wade Adams and Derik Mattson, and Corporal Cole Britton. The defendants argued for summary judgment in their favor based on qualified immunity and that Hubbard didn’t exhaust his administrative remedies. 

In a Sept. 19, 2019, judgment, U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello summarized Hubbard’s claims:

Yowell violated Hubbard’s due process rights by putting him in lockdown for rules violations without notice and a hearing.

Yowell violated Hubbard’s Eighth and 14th Amendment rights by putting him in housing without heat.

Britton violated Hubbard’s due process rights by disciplining him without notice or a hearing.

Nestor, in his individual and official capacities, violated Hubbard’s due process rights and failed to implement a constitutional disciplinary procedure with respect to pretrial detainees.

Adams violated Hubbard’s due process rights by placing him in disciplinary segregation without a hearing.

Mattson violated Hubbard’s due process rights by placing him in lock-down without a hearing and violated his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights by destroying his legal mail. 

Arguello declined to dismiss several of Hubbard’s claims on qualified immunity grounds. In her judgment, she based her analysis on the 14th Amendment’s protection against punishment by the state until a person has been found guilty.

Because courts distinguish between punishment and regulatory restraints to meet pretrial detention’s goal of making sure a person shows up for trial, Arguello wrote, “in order to determine whether a pretrial detainee has been subjected to punishment, courts ‘must ask whether an expressed intent to punish on the part of the detention facility officials exists. … If not, a plaintiff may still prove unconstitutional punishment by showing that the restriction in question bears no reasonable relationship to any legitimate governmental objective.’” 

She wrote if the officials imposed punishment on Hubbard in pretrial detention in violation of his 14th Amendment rights, they aren’t entitled to qualified immunity. 

Arguello dismissed Hubbard’s claim against Nestor in his individual capacity and his Fourth and Fifth Amendment claims against Mattson for destroying Hubbard’s legal mail. The 10th Circuit has agreed to decide whether Arguello made the right decision in declining to dismiss Hubbard’s remaining claims. 

Cheyenne Moore, an associate at Nelson Mullins representing Hubbard, said the reach of the case’s impact will depend on the basis of the 10th Circuit’s decision. The court might get to the question of whether the district court’s factual findings amount to a constitutional violation, she said, but she expects the court to focus on whether the law around pretrial detention treatment is clearly established to determine the county officials’ entitlement to qualified immunity.

“If their decision is jurisdictional-based, then it probably will have minimal impact in the grand scheme of things,” Moore said. “But if it gets more to the merits of the case, it could have more of an impact outside of this case.”

Nelson Mullins partner Mark Clouatre said the novelty of the legal issues about treatment of pretrial detainees may be what caught the 10th Circuit’s attention about the case. “How a detainee must be treated and processed is somewhat of a new principle, at least in the 10th Circuit,” he said. 

Moore added that what constitutes punishment remains an ongoing question for courts. “When you think of qualified immunity, very rarely is it clear-cut,” she said.

Attorneys for the sheriff’s department officials did not provide comments on the record for this story by press time. In their reply brief in the appeal, they argue the defendants’ actions addressed specific safety and security concerns. Hubbard had been put in lockdown after a fight with another inmate, states the brief, and officials had also found homemade weapons in his cell.

“The District Court erroneously determined Appellee was merely accused of possessing such items,” says the brief. “The District Court’s finding that Appellee was merely accused of possessing dangerous contraband is blatantly contradicted by the record.” 

—Julia Cardi

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