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Courts Rule on Sentence Violation And Deliberate Indifference.

Estate of Brown v. Barian, U.S. District Court, Wisconsin, 1999

On Aug. 21, 1997, 21-year-old Randy Brown, attempting to serve as a peacemaker in a street confrontation, was shot and killed by Patrick Rucker, one of the men involved in the altercation, who happened to be on parole under house arrest.

Rucker was not named as a defendant. Rather, the lawsuit named the assistant chief of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC), Division of Community Corrections. Brown's estate claimed that all of Rucker's physical movements were supposed to have been electronically monitored by an electric bracelet, which he was required to wear at all times. A house arrest alert immediately was electronically communicated to a DOC monitoring center in Madison, Wis., on each occasion when Rucker went "out of range" or was "missing." Upon receipt of an alert, the monitoring center was required to immediately notify Rucker's DOC agent that Rucker was in violation of his house arrest sentence. A violation subjected Rucker to immediate seizure and reimprisonment pursuant to an apprehension order.

As a requirement of his house arrest sentence, Rucker was ordered to remain within 30 yards of an electronically monitored telephone in his home. Between Jan. 27, 1997, and Aug. 21, 1997, Rucker violated this sentencing requirement 158 times. Nonetheless, the DOC never reincarcerated Rucker.

According to Brown's complaint, the DOC deliberately refused to order the reimprisonment of Rucker at any time prior to the murder of Brown. Further, it accused the DOC of establishing a policy, practice and procedure whereby inmates, including Rucker, were not to be reapprehended unless the inmates were contemporaneously engaged in criminal conduct or were perceived by DOC officials as posing an imminent threat of violence.

The court ruled that, although the complaint alleged that Rucker frequently violated the terms of his parole by being out of range or missing, nowhere in the complaint did plaintiffs allege that on any of those occasions Rucker engaged in criminal conduct, much less conduct directed at Brown. Brown faced no special danger from Rucker; he was no more vulnerable to Rucker's unforeseen random acts of violence than any other member of the public. Indeed, the harm to Brown was not foreseeable nor a direct consequence of the DOC's failure to take him into custody. To be sure, if the defendants had taken Rucker into custody, he would not have had an opportunity to commit a crime, but the court ruled this is not the same as creating the opportunity for it to occur. Creating, said the court, connotes "affirmative conduct," as opposed to merely standing by and doing nothing, even when suspicious circumstance dictates a more active role for the state.

Accordingly, the court dismissed the claim against the DOC.

Ferris v. County of Kennebec, U.S. District Court, Maine, 1999

Melissa Ferris was arrested on or about June 13, 1996, and committed to the custody of the Kennebec County Jail. During her intake interview, conducted by Officer Gustafson, Ferris stated that she was pregnant.

On the evening of June 14, 1996, Ferris experienced vaginal bleeding while in custody. She complained to Nurse Sprowl, who was employed by ARCH, an organization acting as an agent of Kennebec County for the provision of medical services to jail inmates, that she was having a miscarriage. Ferris told Sprowl that she knew she was experiencing a miscarriage because she had suffered one in 1991.

Sprowl took Ferris' pulse and told her that her pulse rate indicated she was menstruating, not having a miscarriage. Sprowl refused Ferris' request for sanitary pads and ordered her to lie down. Though the plaintiff initially complied with Sprawl's order, she was unable to remain lying down because it made her feel worse. Sprowl warned Ferris that she would be transferred to another cell if she refused to follow Sprowl's order to lie down, however Ferris continued to complain of severe pain.

Some time later, Gustafson moved Ferris to a small cell on another floor, after which she had no further contact with Sprowl. At approximately 2 a.m., June 15, 1996, Ferris had a miscarriage in her cell.

The court determined that Ferris' allegations were sufficient for a due process claim. First, the medical condition of which Ferris complained was plainly serious. Second, Sprowl apparently made no effort to assess or treat Ferris' complaint beyond taking her pulse and ordering her to lie down. Where the dispute concerns not the absence of help, but the choice of a certain course of treatment, deliberate indifference may be found where the attention received is so clearly inadequate as to amount to a refusal to provide essential care. Here, Sprowl's "choice of treatment" in response to the plaintiff's complaint of a miscarriage reasonably could be viewed as sufficiently inadequate to constitute deliberate indifference. Sprowl's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim was, therefore, denied.

The court held that Sprowl's contention that her liability was precluded by qualified immunity was similarly unpersuasive. To assess a claim of qualified immunity, a court must determine whether the plaintiff has alleged the violation of a clearly established right and whether a reasonable, similarly situated defendant would have understood that the challenged conduct violated that clearly established right. Sprowl agreed that deliberate indifference to a pretrial detainee's serious medical needs constitutes a violation of the state's clearly established obligation to provide detainees with adequate medical care. She asserted, however, that a reasonable person in her position would not have understood that her treatment of the plaintiff, or lack thereof, violated this clearly established standard. The court rejected this contention.

Not only did Sprowl rely exclusively on the plaintiff's pulse rate to determine that she was not having a miscarriage, she also made no attempt to confirm whether the plaintiff was or was not pregnant. Moreover, after erroneously diagnosing Ferris' bleeding as the result of menstruation, Sprowl refused to provide her with sanitary supplies. Then, despite Ferris' continuing complaints of pain, Sprowl left her without medical attention for the remainder of her detention. These facts, taken as true, support a claim that Sprowl reasonably should have understood that such minimal care constituted deliberate indifference to the plaintiff's serious medical needs in violation of her clearly established rights.

Attorney Daniel Pollack is associate professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University in New York City
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Author:Pollack, Daniel
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Dec 1, 1999
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