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No qualified immunity for failure to render medical care

The court decides whether to grant law enforcement officers qualified immunity for failure to render medical care following an overdose

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Officers are advised to call for medical assistance whenever there is a reasonable belief it is needed.

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THOMAS V. CITY OF HARRISBURG, 88 F.4th 275 (3rd Cir. 2023)

A municipal police officer and a probation officer saw Terrelle Thomas, along with another man, leave a bar and get into a vehicle as passengers. The police officer conducted a traffic stop and noted Thomas “spoke to her as if he had ‘cotton mouth’ and a large amount of an unknown item inside his mouth.” The officer also noted Thomas had “strands in his mouth that were almost like gum and paste,” he had “pasty white” lips and his “face was covered with a white powdery substance.” The officer concluded Thomas had ingested something and was concealing it in his mouth.

Thomas “spit out a white liquid.” The officer believed Thomas had “ingested a large amount of cocaine.” Nonetheless, Thomas said he only had a small amount of marijuana and explained the white material on his lips was from a candy cigarette. The officer didn’t believe Thomas’s explanation because Thomas did not have any candy cigarettes and she had seen cocaine rocks fall out of Thomas’ shirt.

Other officers arrived. After hearing the initial officers’ observations and seeing Thomas, they, too, concluded Thomas had ingested cocaine. One officer told Thomas he could die from eating cocaine. Officers arrested Thomas and transported him to a booking center. En route, Thomas told an officer he was hot, despite an outdoor temperature of just 46 degrees. Booking officials and medical screening staff saw the white powder on Thomas’ lips but did not perform a medical assessment or put Thomas in an observation area. Two hours later, Thomas fell, hit his head and suffered cardiac arrest. He died three days later. His cause of death was “cocaine and fentanyl toxicity.”

Thomas’ estate sued, alleging the officers failed to render medical care and failed to intervene in other officers’ failure to render aid. The trial court denied qualified immunity for the claims of failure to render medical care and the failure to intervene to prevent a violation of the right to medical care. The officers appealed.

The appellate court agreed the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity for the failure to render medical care. A claim of failure to provide medical care requires the plaintiff to show there was “a serious medical need” and that the officer’s “acts or omissions” showed a “deliberate indifference to that need.” A serious medical need is “one that has been diagnosed by a physician as requiring treatment or one that is so obvious that a layperson would easily recognize the necessity for a doctor’s attention.”

The court stated the officers had clear evidence Thomas had ingested a significant amount of drugs. The arresting officer’s probable cause statement reported Thomas had “a large amount of an unknown substance in his mouth, his lips were pasty white, his face was covered with a white powdery substance, cocaine rocks fell from his shirt, and his candy cigarette explanation was not plausible.” This was sufficient for the officers to determine that Thomas had a serious medical need; the officers’ decision to book Thomas instead of taking him to a hospital demonstrated deliberate indifference to that need.

The court held, “When an officer is aware of the oral ingestion of narcotics by an arrestee under circumstances suggesting the amount consumed was sufficiently large that it posed a substantial risk to health or a risk of death, that officer must take reasonable steps to render medical care.” That’s the bottom-line rule from this case. Even so, the court reversed the trial court ruling on the failure to intervene claim. There was no clearly established right to intervention in the context of rendering medical care. Therefore, the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on that particular claim.

Though a policy violation does not create a constitutional violation, the court also noted the officers violated a department policy that required Thomas be taken to a hospital for treatment and medical clearance prior to booking. Lexipol policy provides that “officers who reasonably suspect a medical emergency should request medical assistance as soon as practicable.” Specific guidance on requesting medical aid is provided in the Use of Force, Handcuffing and Restraints, Control Devices and Techniques, and Conducted Energy Device policies. In this case, the court opined Thomas’ medical need was “so obvious … that every objectively reasonable government official facing the circumstances would know that the officers’ conduct violated federal law.” Though the need may have been obvious in this case, officers are advised to call for medical assistance whenever there is a reasonable belief it is needed.

Read more Ken Wallentine case reviews here.

A police officer and former prosecutor, Ken Wallentine is Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. Traffic detentions and passenger issues are discussed in his new book, Street Legal: A Guide to Pre-trial Criminal Procedure for Police, Prosecutors, and Defenders, published by the American Bar Association Press.
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