(CN) – Pennsylvania state police officers do not have immunity from claims that they tortured a woman with pepper spray, cold water and urine while she was in custody and restraints, a federal judge ruled.
State troopers took Derena Madison into custody after a 2:30 a.m. traffic stop in which they arrested her friend for driving under the influence. When officers said they would tow the car, Madison exited to protest. Police arrested her for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct, putting her into handcuffs and restraining her feet with manacles.
While she was restrained and shackled, she claims that Officer Chad Weaver “twice sprayed [her] face, head and body with pepper spray, without justification… for the purpose of torturing her.”
In response to her calls for help, she says several officers carried her outside the barracks and doused her with large quantities of cold water, after which she blacked out momentarily and fell to her knees in the snow. “When she regained consciousness,” Madison allegedly “felt and smelled urine on her head, face, neck and person. She believes that while she was unconscious, one or more of the defendants urinated on her.”
Madison says she never received medical assistance or an opportunity to decontaminate from the pepper spray. She sued Officers Chad Weaver, Michael Zampogna, an individual identified only as Cooley, and two other unidentified individuals.
The officers moved to partially dismiss, saying the claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault and battery are “barred by sovereign immunity.”
They claimed that “subduing persons is one of the acts of law enforcement officers are employed to perform; officers are also permitted to use force, if necessary, in the commission of their duties,” and that “in effectuating a traffic stop and dealing with an ‘out-of-control’ person,’ the officers were intending to serve the purposes of their ‘master,’ the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” according to the court’s summary.
But Madison says she was “already subdued and shackled at the time the troopers applied pepper spray, water and urine,” according to the court. “The acts were not related to ‘subduing’ her and were not examples of necessary force.”
She claims the alleged acts were “meant to degrade and humiliate her, rather than to serve and purpose of the police or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” the court summarized.
Since sovereign immunity does not bar claims involving actions outside the scope of an officer’s employment, Chief U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster denied the officers’ motion.
“Commonwealth employees are immune from liability due to intentional misconduct, so long as the employee is acting within the scope of his or her employment,” Lancaster wrote. But, if the court takes Madison’s allegations as true, it “cannot say that such acts are ‘clearly incidental’ to the duties of law enforcement officers.” Madison’s “allegations of assault outside the police barracks suggest personal motivation, rather than intent to serve the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” he added. “Therefore, [the officers] are not entitled to sovereign immunity based on the pleadings.”