Policy violation does not equal constitutional violation

The court highlights the differences in a policy violation vs. a constitutional violation in a case involving a jail suicide


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GEORGE V. BEAVER COUNTY, ET AL.,  2022 WL 1310982 (10th Cir. 2022)

Deputies responded to reports of a truck running into parked cars. Troy Bradshaw was the driver. He smelled of alcohol, spoke incoherently, and could barely stand and walk. The deputies arrested Bradshaw for driving under the influence and placed him in a patrol vehicle. Bradshaw complained of pain, so a deputy took him to the local hospital, where Bradshaw twice asked a deputy to kill him. The hospital cleared Bradshaw and a deputy took him to the jail.

A deputy completed the Initial Arrestee Assessment (IAA), which reflected that Bradshaw had previously considered suicide, had a brother who committed or attempted suicide, and was intoxicated. Bradshaw said he would kill himself if placed in a cell. After the assessment, the deputies placed Bradshaw on suicide watch. After some struggle, they placed him in a dry cell with no toilet and no bedding. Bradshaw beat on the cell door for two to three hours.

The deputies did not place Bradshaw in a safety smock or create a suicide watch log, in violation of the jail suicide prevention policy. Nonetheless, a deputy monitored Bradshaw by sitting in the booking area all night. She noted in her shift change report that Bradshaw was suicidal, but she could not recall whether she orally passed the information on to the next shift.

By the next day, Bradshaw was no longer acting violently and was transferred from the dry cell to cell three. A deputy completed a second assessment of Bradshaw as part of the booking process. Bradshaw responded, “Yes,” when asked if he was thinking about suicide. The assessment suggested Bradshaw was suicidal and should be on suicide watch. A nurse directed deputies to give Bradshaw a blanket to stave off shock. He was given a bed roll.

Later that evening, deputies took Bradshaw to the hospital to check a leg injury. They returned him to cell three once back at the jail. The shift change reports for that night and the following night did not suggest Bradshaw was suicidal. Some of the deputies later stated they were not certain whether Bradshaw was still on suicide watch.

On the morning of his second full day in jail, Bradshaw seemed in good spirits at breakfast and lunch. Deputies last saw him alive at 1145 hours. Just after 1200, deputies found him hanging dead in his cell. He had used a pillowcase or sheet. Bradshaw’s mother (the plaintiff) sued. The trial court granted summary judgment to the deputies and the county; the plaintiff appealed.

Attorneys know when suing a cop, the real money is in the deep pockets of the employing agency. In nearly all lawsuits against a city or county claiming an officer violated rights, the plaintiff will allege a failure to properly train government employees. The Supreme Court has noted municipal liability is “most tenuous where a claim turns on a failure to train” (Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51 (2011)). A city or county is generally not liable unless an official policy caused a constitutional injury. A municipal government is responsible only for its own illegal acts and, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, is not vicariously liable for their employees’ actions.

To assign liability to a city or county, a plaintiff must prove that (1) an official policy or custom (2) caused the plaintiff’s constitutional injury and that (3) the municipality enacted or maintained “deliberate indifference” to the risk of that injury occurring. “Deliberate indifference” requires the plaintiff to prove a municipal policy maker disregarded a known or obvious consequence of a decision to maintain a deficient training program.

(Note: Deliberate indifference is defined differently for prison and city or county jail liability under the Eighth Amendment. In the police context, a plaintiff generally must prove a pattern of untrained employees’ constitutional violations to show deliberate indifference.)

In this case, the plaintiff alleged that failing to install CCTV monitoring cameras in the suicide watch cell, provide each deputy with a copy of and training on its suicide prevention policy, and provide training on shift change reports constituted deliberate indifference. The county argued the suicide-prevention policy, along with the rest of the policy handbook, was available to deputies “on every computer in the facility.” Further, each deputy completes a state academy training program that includes a four-hour suicide prevention training, as well as jail-sponsored annual mental health training, which sometimes includes suicide prevention training.

The court noted the jail “could have offered more or better suicide-prevention training,” but “showing merely that additional training would have been helpful in making difficult decisions does not establish municipal liability.” And, in fact, some deputies failed to follow the jail’s suicide-prevention policy, including failing to pass on information about Bradshaw’s suicide watch. The court held that no county policy violated Bradshaw’s constitutional rights. And despite the admitted jail policy violations, “failing to follow prison policy is not a constitutional violation in and of itself.” Thus, the deputies, the sheriff and the county were entitled to qualified immunity.

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