CHICAGO (CN) – The 7th Circuit revived claims that Chicago police officers caused the death of a prominent civil rights activist by refusing to provide her with medication when she was under arrest.
May Molina had founded Families of the Wrongfully Convicted, an organization that worked to vindicate convicts and protest police brutality. She was also a harsh critic of the death penalty.
On May 26, 2004, she died at age 55 while being held in the 19th District lockup. Receiving a tip that Molina and her son, Michael Ortiz, had been selling drugs, 17 police officers raided their apartments, took the pair into custody and recovered several tinfoil packets and some brown putty.
All charges against the son were eventually dropped. Police say Molina swallowed some packets of drugs before she was arrested, causing her to overdose on heroin.
Others claim, however, that Molina died because the police withheld life-saving medication and acted deliberately because of their adversarial relationship with the detainee.
Molina was obese and took daily medications for diabetes, a thyroid condition, hypertension and asthma. These health problems were recorded during screening, though police claim Molina declined medical treatment.
Officers received repeated notification of Molina’s medication needs. The detainee’s daughter, April Ortiz, tried to drop off the prescriptions at the first detention center where her mother was being held, but the on-duty officer refused to accept the medications, saying Molina would soon be transferred to the 19th District and then to the Cermak Hospital.
Department policy forbids detainees from taking medication unless transported to Cermak Hospital.
The front desk at the 19th District received up to 10 phone calls from different people who said Molina needed to take her medications or see a doctor, but the officer who took each call said only the detainee could make such requests. Supervisors on duty at the time also failed to take any responsive action.
When Jeffery Bischoff, Molina’s longtime attorney, arrived 16 hours into her detention, he noticed that she was “having difficulty breathing” and “was breathing like someone who had just … run up a flight of stairs.” Molina was unable to speak. Thinking she belonged in the hospital, Bischoff terminated the meeting and notified officers that his client was “clearly sick” and need to go to Cermak.
Two other detainees testified that Molina called out repeatedly for her medication and asked to be taken to the hospital, but guards ignored her pleas. They claimed that the officers violated policy by failing to conduct cell checks every 15 minutes.
Officers found Molina dead in her cell at 2:45 a.m. on May 26, after 27 hours in custody.
The autopsy report showed Molina had ingested six tinfoil packets and had morphine in her blood. The medical examiner ultimately concluded that Molina had died from opiate intoxication complicated by obesity and cirrhosis of the liver.
Molina’s son, Michael, filed the original lawsuit, but his sister, April, as adminstratrix of their mother’s estate, is the only plaintiff remaining.
U.S. District Judge John Grady granted summary judgment for the defendants, concluding that the city and detention officers were not the proximate cause of Molina’s death despite having knowledge of her medical problems. Grady also concluded that the length of detention was reasonable.
The federal appeals court was not as convinced.
“Where an obviously ill detainee dies in custody and the defendants’ failure to provide medical care is challenged, the causation inquiry is quite broad: ‘the constitutional violation in question here is the failure to provide adequate medical care in response to a serious medical condition, not causing her death,'” Judge Diane Wood wrote for a three-judge panel.
“Lockup keepers are not medical professionals; neither are attorneys or other detainees who happen to observe an arrestee in jail,” she added. “The question is not whether a particular defendant knew what was wrong with Molina, but rather whether the defendant, based on what she observed herself and learned from others, should reasonably have known that Molina needed medical care.”
Officers knew of Molina’s medical needs, and a reasonable jury could find that their inaction caused her death, the 33-page decision states.
The judges agreed, however, that Ortiz cannot sue over the length of her mother’s detention, since the Supreme Court set a 48-hour benchmark in County of Riverside v. McLaughlin.
“It is the plaintiff’s burden to rebut the presumption of reasonableness for a detention that lasts less than 48 hours, and Ortiz has not done so,” Wood wrote.
Judge Terence Evans had been a member of the appellate panel but did not participate in the decision of this case because he died on Aug. 10.