MANHATTAN (CN) – A New York prisoner accusing his guards of stomach-churning payback for refusing to falsely testify against another inmate can pursue a lawsuit involving his “right not to snitch,” the Second Circuit ruled.
Wende Correctional Facility inmate Aaron Willey says that the trouble began when a sergeant questioned him in a room without cameras or witnesses about a fellow prisoner suspected of smuggling drugs behind bars.
“I explained that I had no knowledge or recollection of involvement with this person, nor did I even know who this person was,” Willey wrote in a federal complaint.
At this point, Sgt. Scott Lambert grabbed “what appeared to be a weapon” from a desk drawer and warned, “Either you work with us as an informant or you are going to be charged with a weapon,” Willey claims.
He clammed up and a series of grotesque retributions followed, he says.
His typewritten complaint from prison describes guards tossing him into solitary confinement and then restricting the airflow and water pressure for his cell for at least seven days to force him to breathe in his own waste.
Willey also alleges that he was kept naked in a mental observation cell for 14 days before being transferred to a filthy observation cell with urine and feces stains on the walls and mattresses.
U.S. District Judge Charles Siragusa scoffed that Willey did not have a case because federal law does not afford prisoners a “right not to snitch.”
A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit found on Friday that this phrase did not fit the allegations.
“Although the intransitive verb “to snitch” does not yet merit a mention in Black’s Law Dictionary, we understand it to signify the act of providing information to a person in authority about another’s wrongdoing,” U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Katzmann wrote for the court. “‘Snitching’ carries a connotation, if not the denotation, of providing truthful information that inculpates the wrongdoer.”
Since Willey says the guards wanted him to lie, Sigarusa “perhaps misconstrues” the allegations of the lawsuit, Katzmann added.
The opinion leaves it up to Sigarusa to decide the “right of an inmate to refuse to provide false information to a corrections officer.”
Willey can pursue Eighth Amendment claims that he was forced to endure unsanitary conditions of confinement and given nutritionally inadequate food. He can also accuse authorities of harassment, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and theft of his legal documents.
Although Willey had pro bono counsel for his appeal, he does not currently have a lawyer to represent him when the case returns to Siragusa on remaind.
The appellate court urged Siragusa to “seriously consider” providing him an attorney because his claims seem “likely to be of substance.”
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office declined to comment.
Willey’s appellate lawyer Ryan Lema, of the firm Phillips Lytle LLP, could not be reached by press time.
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