By: Ami Imbrogno & Tami Hannon
Deputies and corrections officers are faced with many situations and decisions which potentially expose them to liability. They are required to make split second decisions on whether and how much force to use. They are required to evaluate whether there is a good basis to arrest someone. Based on new law from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, they are also now potentially liable to those in their custody for allegations of reckless driving.
In Scott v. Becher, a prisoner brought various constitutional claims surrounding injuries he allegedly sustained during a transfer to another facility. Specifically, Scott alleged that the transportation officer drove over the speed limit, swerved, and “laughed and accelerated” in response to inmates’ pleas to him to slow down. Scott plead in his complaint that, as a result of Becher’s reckless driving, the bus hit a bump, became airborne, and threw Scott into the air, allegedly causing him injury to his head, neck, and back. He alleged that the reckless driving constituted a violation of his Eighth Amendment rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, and was deliberately indifferent to his safety.
The officer defended on the basis that he was entitled to qualified immunity – that is, he may only be held liable in civil suits for civil rights violations if they violate a plaintiff’s clearly established Constitutional right. While courts in other circuits have considered whether reckless driving states a viable claim, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals had not weighed in on this issue. First, the Court found that a claim of reckless driving would constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment as “a ‘rough ride’ is a particularly cruel means of punishment.” The Court then went on to find that the officer had “fair warning” from other courts that his actions may be improper such that he was not entitled to qualified immunity despite the Court never before addressing this question. Specifically, the Court found that “in light of the obviousness of the constitutional violation, Becher could not reasonably have believed that driving recklessly while Scott and the other prisoners were not wearing seatbelts was lawful.”
Scott also claimed that the officer violated his Constitutional rights after he sustained the injury by taking him to the destination prison instead of directly to a hospital, despite Scott’s requests for immediate medical attention. However, the Court of Appeals agreed that Becher was entitled to qualified immunity on the deliberate indifference to medical needs claim. It stated “we cannot say that any reasonable officer would have known that the Constitution required Becher to drive the prison bus immediately to the hospital.”
In light of this, law enforcement officials should ensure that they are properly training their officers on vehicle operations, and safely securing inmates or passengers during transport. Discipline should be issued for improper driving or violations of the policy.