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The Eleventh Circuit Grants Qualified Immunity to Corrections Officer after Inmate Dies of an Overdo

Sheneque Proctor was in pretrial detention at the Bessemer City jail when she died from a drug overdose. Latunja Johnson, her mother and personal representative, filed a lawsuit against Karrie Goodwin, a jail corrections officer who was on duty while Proctor was in detention. Johnson v. Bessemer, Alabama, City of, 2018 WL 3359672 (11th Cir. 2018). Johnson alleged deliberate indifference to a serious medical need. The district court granted summary judgment to Goodwin on the basis of qualified immunity and Johnson appealed.

On November 1, 2014, Bessemer City police received a dispatch call about a disturbance at an Economy Inn motel. Officers arrived at the motel around 1:40 p.m. and found Proctor, who was upset because she lost some money. After Proctor refused to calm down, she was arrested, handcuffed, and placed in a squad car. Proctor shouted and resisted her restraints the entire transport. After taking her into the jail, one of the officers found a small baggie of marijuana in the back of the squad car. The officer asked Proctor if she was “currently under the influence of, or [had] taken cocaine, amphetamines, barbiturates, PCP, opiates, heroin, or alcohol within the last eight (8) hours.” Proctor refused to answer any questions.

As part of the intake process, Goodwin tried to get some information from Proctor, but Proctor cursed and spat at her. Goodwin then placed Proctor in a single-person cell. Although Proctor was steady on her feet and her speech was normal, Goodwin believed she was on some sort of drug. Proctor had to fill out a medical questionnaire form in which she admitted that she “used weed” but did not list any other drug. Goodwin put Proctor into her cell around 3:00 p.m. and a jail surveillance video showed the remaining interactions with Proctor and Goodwin from that point until Goodwin’s shift ended at 10:00 p.m.

Goodwin checked on Proctor and found her sitting on her bed with her head in her hands. Proctor did not respond to Goodwin and Goodwin laid Procter down in the bed. Shortly thereafter, Goodwin returned with a food tray and tried to shake Proctor awake to no avail. Goodwin returned multiple times and an inmate told Goodwin that Proctor had told other inmates that she had been taking Xanax bars. Goodwin testified that she kept a close eye on Proctor because she believed Proctor had taken drugs, but that she was not alarmed by Proctor’s state and did not believe that she would die. Goodwin again checked on Proctor at 5:39 p.m., 8:38 p.m., and 9:27 p.m. A new shift came on duty at 10:00 p.m. Two officers checked on Proctor at regular intervals throughout the night, and one of them heard her snoring. Just after 4:00 a.m., an officer served breakfast to Proctor and noticed that she was not moving. An officer called the paramedics, who arrived at 4:11 a.m. and pronounced Proctor dead at the scene. The coroner determined the cause of death as polydrug overdose (methadone, cocaine, and alprazolam (Xanax)).

Because Proctor was never seen by a physician, Johnson “must establish ... that [Proctor’s] medical need was so obvious that a lay person—in [Goodwin’s] place—would recognize the need for treatment.” Given the difficult to detect line between sleeping and unconsciousness, and the undisputed fact that Proctor was breathing every time Goodwin checked on her, Proctor’s need for medical treatment was not so obvious that a lay person would have easily recognized it. Further, Proctor did not exhibit any symptoms (such as vomiting or seizures), that indicated a deteriorating condition or that she was suffering from a polydrug overdose. As such, Goodwin was entitled to qualified immunity.

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