CHICAGO (CN) – Former corrections officers who were investigated after a 2006 jailbreak cannot sue the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, the 7th Circuit ruled.
Six prisoners, all violent felons, escaped from the abnormal-behavior observation unit of the Cook County Jail in 2006 when inmate Patrell Doss overpowered a jail guard named Darin Gater.
After temporarily blinding Gater with cleaning solution, Doss changed into Gater’s uniform, released other inmates and started a diversionary fire.
While the prisoners made their way toward the exit, the disguised Doss convinced other jail guards to open internal doors. Doss then beat the guards and took their keys. Authorities quickly recaptured the escapees in the Chicago area.
Suspecting an inside job, the sheriff’s office launched an investigation under the supervision of internal affairs director Timothy Kaufmann. Gater admitted to assisting with the escape and directly implicated three other guards: Bill Jones, Roberto Rodriguez and Gene Michno.
The investigation focused on members of an elite, 20-member security unit known as the Special Operations Response Team.
Gater also identified two other SORT members, Richard Davis and Marvin Bailey, as officers whom inmates could “work with.”
Six of the disgraced guards filed suit for retaliation, false imprisonment and emotional distress.
One plaintiff, Ivan Hernandez, said he had been disciplined for failing to conduct a shakedown of inmates in the abnormal-behavior observation unit after learning that one of them may have possessed a shank on the evening of the escape.
The other five had been suspended without pay almost immediately. They claimed that the sheriff’s office denied them food, water and sleep in a 24-hour detention under guard. Several also said that the sheriff’s office discouraged them from contacting a union steward or attorney.
After transferring all of the suspects, all six faced administrative charges and their unit was disbanded. Three found to have violated their professional duties were suspended or forced out. Charges could not be sustained against the remaining three.
The officers claimed that their support of Richard Remus, a former director of SORT who was running for Sheriff of Cook County at the time of the jailbreak, provided the true impetus for the investigation.
U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman granted the sheriff’s office summary judgment on the workplace retaliation complaints, finding speech relating to an employee’s official duties is not subject to First Amendment protection. He denied the sheriff’s officials immunity, however, on the political retaliation and state tort claims.
A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit revived the immunity claims in March 2011, writing that “the simple facts of a serious jailbreak and the suspicion of internal cooperation … make the undertaking of a vigorous investigation unsurprising.”
Guzman nevertheless denied the guards summary judgment again on remand, finding that material issues of fact still existed relating to the political retaliation claims and the veracity of Gater’s confession.
He also was suspicious that no other officers were investigated.
The Sheriff’s Office appealed, and the 7th Circuit again reversed Monday.
“It is apparent in the record before us that the Sheriff’s Office did have legitimate reasons to investigate the Officers,” Judge Richard Cudahy wrote for the unanimous panel.
Though the jailbreak alone may have been sufficient to find probable cause, Gater’s signed statement implicating the officers provided additional justification for the investigation, according to the five-page opinion.
Guzman improperly concluded that “it is disputed whether [Gater’s] statement was false and coerced and whether … the investigators were aware of the fact that the statement was false and coerced,” the ruling continues.
Gater had tried to suppress the statement at his trial, but an Illinois judge barred him from doing so after finding the statement voluntary. This holding bars Guzman from construing it otherwise.
“The District Court also seems to have relied on the notion that the officers were the only individuals singled out for investigation,” Cudahy wrote.
“We note that even if this were true, the fact that the officers were implicated in the escape by another guard might account for this disparity.”
Cudahy nevertheless highlighted the fact that the sheriff’s office reprimanded other guards, including one official named as a defendant in this case.
“Due to the fact that the authorities had probable cause to investigate the officer, we are less concerned about other possible motivations for their treatment,” Cudahy wrote. “While Kaufmann and others may have expressed negative opinions regarding the officers’ support for Remus, we find it objectively reasonable to investigate officers implicated in a multi-felon jailbreak.”
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