OXFORD, Miss. (CN) – Recommending they read William Faulkner to learn the “boundaries of human decency,” a federal judge on Friday admonished former Mississippi police officers accused of forcing a mentally disabled man to eat a mouthful of cinnamon days after making him box a cop.
In 2012, officers in Tutwiler, Mississippi, allegedly forced Denareus Cortez Martin, then 19, into a boxing match, and a few days later made him undergo the “cinnamon challenge,” filming and posting footage of both incidents on social media.
Martin, who was declared mentally disabled by a court years earlier, was performing community service for a conviction at the time.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Michael Mills in Oxford federal court entered default judgment against three former officers and ruled that if Tutwiler’s then-chief of police was present for the filming of the cinnamon challenge, then the town could also be found liable for violating Martin’s Eighth Amendments rights.
“It is high time for those in authority in civil jurisdictions, large and small, to recognize the moral, if not juridical, boundaries of human decency,” Mills wrote in his 20-page order. “If the parties in this case were so of a mind, they might find enlightenment in the works of William Faulkner and learn vicariously the limits of acceptable conduct in a civilized society.”
Mills especially recommended the lessons learned from “the boorish and indecent exploits” of the character Lump Snopes, which are chronicled in Faulkner’s “The Hamlet.”
According to Mills, who reviewed the footage, Tutwiler police officers made Martin box Jimmy Johnson on Jan. 27, 2012. Johnson, who is a defendant in the suit, is a former police officer older and larger than Martin who allegedly hit the teen hard in the head and caused him to fall to the ground more than once.
Then, a few days later on Feb. 4, officers filmed Martin trying to eat a large amount of cinnamon, according to the order, before running to a sink and retching.
Ten days later, the town’s board of aldermen gathered in an executive session, where the police officers and chief of police, Terry Tyler, were immediately terminated.
Martin, through his conservator Christine Jackson, filed a lawsuit alleging the “unsafe and humiliating spectacles” he was forced to perform violated his constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment.
But while police officers Johnson and Bobby Banks Jr. and Tutwiler town clerk Angelia Chandler did not defend themselves, Mills issued the order granting default judgment “reluctantly.”
Martin’s lawyer filed the motion for default judgment against the individuals over a month past the deadline to do so, but no objections were raised.
“In granting the motion for default judgment,” Mills wrote, “this court is motivated largely by the fact that this case involves allegations of serious constitutional violations, and, if none of these three individual defendants have seen fit to defend themselves, then this court is reluctant to grant them the windfall of a dismissal based upon an oversight by plaintiff’s counsel.”
Meanwhile, the town of Tutwiler fought back. It filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss all of Martin’s claims.
Martin’s lawyers responded by dropping all of his claims except for the allegation that the city’s policies were an Eighth Amendment violation.
As for the question of who set the town’s policies in this instance, Tutwiler argued it was its board of aldermen.
But Judge Mills denied the town’s motion in part, saying it was Tyler, the chief of police, who was the final policymaker when it came to the treatment of Martin because the board of aldermen delegated policymaking power to a trusted official.
The judge cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Monell v. Department of Social Services in saying that a municipality is only responsible for its own constitutional violations, not the violations of its employees.
“When deciding a close and difficult issue of law such as this one, this court tends to error on the side of simple fairness and justice,” Mills wrote, “and it simply does not seem fair to allow the town to defend itself based on the notion that the board of aldermen set its final policy on this issue when it would never actually be in a position to influence events such as those in this case, beyond imposing discipline after the fact.”
Concluding his order, Mills urged the parties to settle, citing challenges for both sides to prove their cases to a jury.
Martin is represented by attorney Gregory Malta and Tutwiler by Jason Thomas Marsh of Phelps Dunbar LLP in Jackson, Mississippi.