Cops Not Responsible for Hypothermia Death
ST. LOUIS (CN) - Cops who dropped off an intoxicated man at a rural highway off-ramp in freezing temperatures are not responsible for his eventual death from hypothermia, ruled the 8th Circuit ruled.
The ruling by the three-judge panel affirmed the dismissal of the case from the Eastern District Court of Arkansas at Little Rock.
James Gladden, Jr. filed suit on behalf of himself and the Estate of Bradley Gladden after Bradley died of hypothermia near the Lonoke County (Ark.) line on December 12, 2010.
Gladden was picked up by Officers Kenneth Richbourg and Eric Van Imhoff of the North Little Rock Police Department shortly after midnight at a Waffle House when employees called 911 to report that he was intoxicated and would not leave the restaurant.
The officers took him outside the restaurant, searched him, found an unopened bottle of whiskey and were told by Gladden that he had been assaulted by several men a gas station earlier in the evening.
Officer Imhoff had dealt with Gladden on two previous occasions and, in one instance, given him a ride to the county line before dropping him off near a family member's residence.
Upon determining that Gladden was not excessively intoxicated, the officers agreed to have Richbourg take him to the Lonoke County line to meet his sister, but Gladden was unable to call her to arrange a pickup.
Gladden was dropped at the off-ramp of the Remington Road exit on Interstate 40, where the outside air temperature was somewhere between 25 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit.
Officer Richbourg told Gladden to head to the Remington Arms factory - the only nearby building - for assistance, and then drove away.
Gladden's body was found the next morning near a weigh station on I-40, located in the opposite direction of the arms factory.
Hypothermia was ruled the cause of death, and intoxication was listed as a contributing factor.
James Gladden Jr. sued the officers and the Chief of the North Little Rock Police Department for Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights violations, as well as wrongful death.
All of the claims brought by Gladden Jr. were dismissed by U.S. District Judge Brian S. Miller, who determined the officers were entitled to both qualified and official immunity, and that the sheriff was entitled to official immunity.
On appeal, Gladden Jr. argued that officers Richbourg and Imhoff violated Bradley Gladden's right to due process by "dropping Gladden off at an isolated off-ramp on a cold December night knowing that he was intoxicated and ill-prepared to fend for himself."
Quoting the 1992 Eighth Circuit case Gregory v. City of Rogers, Ark., Judge Wollman noted that citizens are not entitled to police assistance except "in custodial and other settings in which the state has limited the individuals' ability to care for themselves; and second, when the state affirmatively places an individual in a position of danger the individual would not otherwise have faced."
Gladden Jr. argued that the ride provided by the officers meets these requirements, but the panel disagreed, concluding that "the undisputed facts demonstrate that Gladden voluntarily accepted the ride to the Remington Road exit and was sober enough to make this decision rationally."
Judge Wollman continues: "James asserts that because the rear doors of Richbourg's squad car could not be opened from the inside, Gladden was not free to leave Richbourg's presence. But the mechanics of the squad car's door are less important than Richbourg's willingness to let Gladden out wherever he desired. Presumably, Gladden could have asked Richbourg to drop him off at a specific location, as he had done with Imhoff in the past, or take him back to North Little Rock if he changed his mind about getting to the county line. The officers were attempting to do Gladden a favor; at no point during the trip would a reasonable individual have believed that he was not free to leave the officers' presence."
Gladden Jr.'s appeal also failed to convince the panel that the officers placed Bradley Gladden in a position of danger and then failed to protect him.
The judges explained that "there was a guard station just over a thousand feet away from where Richbourg left Gladden, and the factory guarded by the shack was visible from the Remington Road exit a few hundred feet away. The defendants' expert noted in his report that Gladden could have walked six miles in the clothes he was wearing; had Gladden followed Richbourg's instructions and approached the guard station, he would have found shelter, warmth, and a phone."
While admitting that Gladden's intoxicated state was "a potentially complicating factor," the panel used the 1998 Northern District of Illinois case Riordan v. City of Joliet - in which police officers evicted a severely intoxicated man from a hotel and left him on the steps of a police station - as a guide to determining the officers' immunity status.
Judge Wollman writes: "The facts of Riordan are instructive. In that case, the officers were presented with numerous signs that the plaintiff was severely intoxicated. Id. at 892-83. The plaintiff could not walk under his own power; the officers had to escort him out of his hotel by his elbows. The plaintiff could not dress himself and repeatedly kicked his own shoes off as the officers attempted to put them on his feet. Indeed, the plaintiff was too intoxicated even to sign a compliance ticket that the officers issued to him or to communicate with the officers meaningfully.
"Gladden's intoxication did not rise to anywhere near this level. Four Waffle House employees testified as to Gladden's state on the night of December 11. Eboni Snowden stated that Gladden was 'drunk' but not 'as heavily drunk' as he usually was, and she interacted with Gladden coherently throughout the night. ... Troy Johnson testified that Gladden had a 'six pack ... buzz' but that he was not so drunk that he was a danger to himself. ... All four employees testified that they did not observe Gladden consume any alcohol from the time he had entered the Waffle House until the time he left with Richbourg."
The panel concluded that "while it may have been negligent for the officers to leave a mildly intoxicated man at a rural intersection on a cold night, their conduct in doing so was not so reckless that it shocks the conscience of the court."
Gladden Jr.'s state civil rights claims were also dismissed by the panel.