Fourth Circuit Rules Against Virginia Sheriff’s Deputies in Jail Death Case

A Fourth Circuit panel ruled that Botetourt County sheriff’s deputies who failed to render medical care to an intoxicated detainee later found dead in a jail cell are not entitled to qualified immunity.

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RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — A Fourth Circuit panel Tuesday reversed a grant of qualified immunity to several sheriff’s deputies in Virginia, ruling they failed to act on an intoxicated man’s obvious medical needs before he was found dead in a jail cell. 

In 2016, a stranger called 911 to request medical help for David Wayne Mays, who was found by officers sitting in the cab of his pickup truck “so intoxicated that he could hardly lift his head to communicate.”

The unnamed caller explained the Mays had consumed alcohol and prescription narcotics and that he was extremely intoxicated.

“After Mays was arrested for public intoxication, he was placed in a cell at the county jail to sober up. He was later found dead,” U.S. Circuit Judge Julius Richardson, a Donald Trump appointee, wrote in a 16-page opinion Tuesday. 

According to court documents, Mays had died from acute hydrocodone, gabapentin, citalopram and alprazolam intoxication.

Mays’ brother, as the administrator of his estate, sued the officers involved, claiming that their failure to provide medical care violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. He also argued that the officers violated his brother’s 14th Amendment rights under the Due Process Clause.

“But the district court granted the officers’ motion to dismiss,” Richardson wrote. “We disagree.”

Richardson and the two other Fourth Circuit judges on the panel determined that Mays’ estate had successfully made a plausible 14th Amendment claim showing the officers’ “deliberate indifference” to his medical condition. 

Richardson was joined by U.S. Circuit Judges Albert Diaz, a Barack Obama nominee, and Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Roger Gregory, a George W. Bush appointee, in the unanimous ruling Tuesday. 

“As a result, we conclude that the complaint plausibly alleges that Mays had an objectively serious medical condition requiring medical attention and that the officers subjectively knew of that need and the excessive risk of their inaction. That is enough to overcome qualified immunity and survive a motion to dismiss,” Richardson wrote. 

The Fourth Circuit’s ruling overturns the earlier decision of Senior U.S. District Judge Glen E. Conrad in the Western District of Virginia, who had granted the officers’ motion to dismiss the claims made against them.

Conrad held that Mays’ estate failed to plead enough facts to successfully argue the deliberate indifference to medical care claim and that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. 

Qualified immunity shields federal and state officials from monetary damages unless a plaintiff can show that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right and that the right was “clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.”

“So this appeal hinges on whether Mays pleaded sufficient facts to show both that he had an objectively serious medical condition and that the officers had subjective knowledge of the condition and the excessive risk posed by inaction,” Richardson wrote of Mays’ appeal to the Fourth Circuit. 

The complaint alleged that the officers knew that a 911 caller requested assistance and medical care for Mays before the officers responded to the scene, and that they knew Mays was “extremely intoxicated” and under the influence of drugs. 

Additionally, the complaint says that the officers could clearly see the man’s level of intoxication by observing his inhibited ability to talk, walk, sit and remain conscious. 

Richardson wrote that law enforcement officers often deal with intoxicated detainees who don’t require medical attention. 

“But here, the initial 911 report explained that Mays’s consumption of alcohol and prescription narcotics left him extremely intoxicated and needing medical care. What the officers are then alleged to have observed plausibly confirms those basic facts,” Richardson wrote.

“Mays’s failure to tell the officers that he had consumed a lethal amount of drugs, assuming he could articulate as much, matters not when we consider the bag of prescription pills in Mays’s truck along with his almost vegetative state and the 911 caller’s request for medical attention,” the judge added

The judge noted that all of these factors go beyond a typical officer’s interaction with an intoxicated person.

Representation for the sheriff’s deputies could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

The case is remanded to the district court. 

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