WASHINGTON (CN) — Texas prison guards can be sued over claims that they placed a mentally ill inmate in cells covered in feces and raw sewage, the Supreme Court ruled Monday, reversing a decision that shielded the guards under the controversial doctrine of qualified immunity.
The case stems from six days that inmate Trent Taylor spent at a psychiatric prison unit in Lubbock, Texas, where guards first placed him in a cell covered in what court documents described as “massive amounts of feces.”
After days of refusing to eat or drink for fear that his food would be contaminated, Taylor was moved to a separate cell without a bed. There, he was left to sleep in naked in a pool of sewage after a drain in the cell overflowed, according to court records.
Earlier this year, the Fifth Circuit ruled that while those conditions violated the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the guards could not be held responsible because there was no “clearly established law” that prisoners cannot be held in such conditions for the specific time period of six days.
The Supreme Court rejected that finding in stark terms Monday, writing in an unsigned 7-1 opinion that “no reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time.”
With qualified immunity defenses, police, prison guards and other government personnel can get out of lawsuits by proving that their specific actions in a particular case have not been previously considered by the courts. The doctrine has become increasingly controversial among racial justice and police reform advocates who have called it “a free pass” for police accused of high-profile deadly shootings.
In a concurring opinion to Monday’s ruling, conservative Justice Samuel Alito wrote that while he did not think the court should have taken up the Lubbock case in the first place, he nonetheless agreed that the guards should not have been protected from being sued.
“A reasonable corrections officer would have known that this course of conduct was unconstitutional, and the cases on which respondents rely do not show otherwise,” Alito wrote.
Justice Clarence Thomas, a staunchly conservative voice on the high court, was the lone vote against Monday’s ruling, though Thomas has previously raised concerns about shielding police from civil lawsuits over the use of excessive force.
In June, the George H.W. Bush appointee criticized the court’s decision to not hear a separate case about qualified immunity, writing in a six-page dissent that “there likely is no basis for the objective inquiry into clearly established law that our modern cases prescribe.”
Attorneys for Taylor praised Monday’s ruling and said they would continue with their claims against the prison guards.
“We are thrilled with this morning’s decision from the Supreme Court reaffirming that government officials are not entitled to qualified immunity when their conduct is obviously unconstitutional, regardless of whether there is precedent clearly establishing the violation,” Elizabeth Cruikshank, an attorney with the firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, said in a statement. “Texas prison officials subjected our client, Trent Taylor, to horrific abuse by keeping him naked in cells covered in human feces for six days.”
The nonprofit legal advocacy group Rights Behind Bars also represented Taylor in the case.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office, which defended the guards in the case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.
A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice declined to comment on the ruling. When asked if the guards targeted in the lawsuit are still employed by the state or still working at the prison unit at the center of the case, the department said it could not provide that information based solely on the guards’ names “because there is simply not enough information to determine the HR status of only names with no other identifiers.”
Joanna Schwartz, a UCLA law professor and expert on lawsuits involving police misconduct, called Monday’s ruling a “big deal.”
Writing on Twitter, Schwartz said the Supreme Court had “breathed new life into the notion that qualified immunity should be denied if the constitutional violation is obvious - a ruling the Court made almost 20 years ago but has ignored until today.”
In a separate ruling Monday, the high court rejected an appeal from a Florida death row inmate whose conviction was reportedly based in part on testimony from a jailhouse informant described as a “liar” and “con artist” in a lengthy ProPublica/New York Times investigation from December.