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Hale v. Burns

August 11, 2008

PHILLIP D. HALE, JR.
v.
STEVE BURNS, ET AL.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. Ronnie Greer United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This pro se prisoner's civil rights action, brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, was tried by the Court on June 26, 2008, on the issue of an Eighth Amendment violation. Plaintiff, who is now confined in a state prison, was an inmate in the Greene County Detention Center ["GCDC"] when his claims accrued. Of the eight original defendants, six remain. They are: Eddie Tweed, J. B. Morman, Jason Riddle, Jason Armstrong, Jennifer Raider [Greene], and Jeremy Bowman-all employed as officers at GCDC during the time the events precipitating this lawsuit occurred.*fn1

Plaintiff contends that his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment was violated when various defendants used excessive force against him by pushing him to the floor; kicking and stomping him; and, while he was handcuffed, spraying him with pepper spray-one eye at a time and from inches away. He further claims that they jerked him up from the floor; took him to the drunk tank, leading him by his hair and, while enroute, slammed his head against everything; and kept him in restraints for one hour before permitting him to shower and wash away the remains of the chemical spray. As a result of these purported actions on the part of defendants, plaintiff claims to have sustained a permanent injury to his eyes. After careful consideration of the proof at trial and the record as a whole, the Court makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law:

1. At the GCDC, some fifty inmates take medication. A nurse prepares an inmate's medication and places it and a small quantity of water, contained in a cup, measuring some 2 inches in circumference and 1 inch in diameter, on a medication cart. Thereafter, the officer who dispenses the medication, rolls the cart to the vestibule-an area which is surrounded by the cells of inmates who receive the medication, and calls the inmates, cell-by-cell, to line up for their medication. The officer then places each inmate's dose of medication and a cup of water on a tray. The tray or slot is constructed of cell bars which have been flattened and attached to the interior of the door. The inmate grasps his medication and water, ingests the medication and, afterwards, replaces the cup on the flat bars, where it is retrieved by the officer for disposal. Inmates in the disciplinary cell are the last group to receive medication.

2. In the early morning hours of July 19, 2006, defendant officer J. B. Morman was distributing medication to inmates, including plaintiff, in GCDC's disciplinary cell. The inmates had formed a line in the vestibule to receive their medication. Plaintiff, waiting in line at the time, asked Morman a question about the disposition of personal effects of an inmate who had departed from the disciplinary cell. Mormon tersely responded that he did not know the answer to the question or that he could not deal with the matter at that time. Plaintiff retorted that Morman should go get another officer, perhaps adding "one that's got some sense." Morman then reached out to retrieve the last inmate's cup, containing some residual water, which had been positioned on the flat bars. In the process of reaching for the cup, Morman knocked it off the bars, something which has happened many times before. However, this time the cup hit plaintiff in the eye or the torso and, according to plaintiff's testimony, hurt his pride. Plaintiff then responded,"Next time you come through here, I'm going to throw 'feces'*fn2 on you."

3. Morman then instructed plaintiff to step to the back of the line, a directive with which plaintiff complied, and defendant officer continued giving medication to the remaining inmates. After completing his task, Morman advised plaintiff that he was going to take him downstairs and opened the door to the vestibule. When plaintiff did not step forward as requested, Morman approached him and grabbed his right arm. Though plaintiff knew he would not be allowed to remain in the cell because of the prior encounter with defendant officer, he nevertheless pulled back, with his hands below his waist, and Morman decided that he needed to handcuff plaintiff.

4. From his vantage point in the tower, defendant officer Jason Riddle observed Morman signal to plaintiff to step out of the vestibule and he also saw plaintiff backing away. After calling for back-up assistance from other officers, Riddle hastened to the vestibule, where he saw Morman attempting to grasp plaintiff's right hand and plaintiff resisting that attempt. Riddle joined in the fray and propelled plaintiff to the floor. Riddle held plaintiff's legs to the floor, while Morman, now positioned on plaintiff's back, continued his efforts to handcuff plaintiff, who was on his stomach with his arms stiffened to prevent application of the restraints.

5. Defendant officer Jeremy Bowman was downstairs in the booking area when he heard Riddle's call for back-up. He rushed to the vestibule to assist the other officers in subduing plaintiff. He was accompanied by defendant officers Eddie Tweed and Jason Armstrong. When Bowman arrived at the scene of the disturbance, he saw that plaintiff was not under control-Morman and Riddle respectively were struggling to apply handcuffs and to restrain plaintiff's legs-and that plaintiff was spitting and resisting all efforts to restrain him. Bowman pulled out his pepper spray, pointed it towards plaintiff's face [which was elevated slightly above the floor and angled towards Bowman], pressed down on the applicator, and released the pepper spray directly into plaintiff's face in a circular motion, at close range, to regain control over plaintiff and to avoid the use of harsher means to curb his resistance. The pepper spray had the desired effect and Morman applied handcuffs to the now-subdued plaintiff. After administering the spray, Bowman helped plaintiff to his feet, and he and other officers placed him, facing the back, into the elevator and escorted him downstairs.

6. Defendant Jason Armstrong, the booking officer, also responded to the call for help. He hastened upstairs, where he found Morman and Riddle on the floor struggling with plaintiff, whose legs were still moving. Armstrong went to the floor and helped restrain plaintiff's legs. Armstrong concentrated on corralling plaintiff's legs and did not "necessarily" see pepper spray being used. Armstrong and Bowman, each with a grip on one of plaintiff's arms, escorted this still-spitting inmate from the vestibule and walked him, with his body stiffened, to the elevator. Some ten to fifteen minutes after plaintiff reached the drunk tank downstairs, he was handed a towel and permitted to shower. At some point, Armstrong ordered plaintiff to place his knees on the bench so that his cuffs could be removed.

7. Defendant Jennifer Greene, nee Raider, who was also in the booking area, likewise responded to the summons for back-up. However, she missed the activation of the pepper spray because, when she arrived at the vestibule, plaintiff was standing in an upright position and walking with his officer escorts out of the vestibule and down the hall. Greene turned around and proceeded downstairs.

8. Defendant Eddie Tweed, the shift supervisor, also answered the call for back-up. When he got to the scene, Morman and Riddle were attempting to restrain plaintiff and plaintiff was still struggling, spitting, and resisting. Because the skirmish was occurring in a constricted space, Tweed stood back and watched the conflict. However, due to a breathing problem, Tweed backed away while the chemical was being sprayed and did not actually witness the application of the pepper spray. After the pepper spray was discharged from its container, plaintiff was somewhat subdued, but he continued to be uncooperative and had to be urged to move forward by the three defendant officers (Tweed, Bowman and Armstrong), who were attempting to escort him downstairs to the drunk tank.

9. Some thirty minutes after the incident, Tweed talked with plaintiff in order to determine his side of the story as to what had instigated the fracas. Plaintiff, seemingly unfrightened and unintimidated, recounted that Morman had thrown a cup in his face. However, he denied having any injury or need for medical attention. At the close of the conversation, plaintiff, now calm, acknowledged that he had messed up and assured Tweed that he would behave if he were returned to his upstairs cell.

10. Tweed also talked to Morman, who admitted that he had knocked the cup off the flat bars, denied that he had been trying to hit plaintiff, and disavowed any knowledge as to whether the cup actually had hit plaintiff. Tweed, finding no support for plaintiff's version of events, concluded that the "cup" incident essentially was "Much Ado About Nothing."

11. Some 30 minutes to one hour after the incident, plaintiff was handed a wet towel and allowed to shower. He was given a disciplinary write-up as a result of the above events, though later the write-up was dismissed because ...


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