Delay in Use of Force Following an Altercation May Constitute Excessive Force

Quincy Williams, a state prisoner, brought a § 1983 action against defendants, including correctional officers, alleging excessive force in violation of the Eighth Amendment following the use of pepper spray on Williams. Williams v. Rickman, 759 Fed.Appx. 849 (11th Cir. 2019). The district court adopted the report and recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge and granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment.

Correctional officers in a prison setting can use pepper spray on an inmate, but there must be a valid penological reason for such a use of force. Captain Chad Harrell testified that he deployed pepper spray against Williams because (1) he was being disruptive (i.e., shouting profanities from his cell and kicking the cell door), and (2) refused to stop this behavior after Captain Harrell and Officer Nicolas Rickman counseled him. Williams denied creating a disturbance and presented evidence creating an issue of fact as to whether the use of pepper spray was warranted. In his verified complaint, Williams stated that on the day in question (1) both Captain Harrell and Assistant Warden John Barfield told him several times that he was going to get “gassed;” (2) Captain Harrell and an unknown officer came to his cell around 3:00 p.m. and told him to stop causing a disturbance; (3) that he “was not” causing a disturbance; and that (4) at around 3:30 p.m., and without warning, his cell door was opened and he was sprayed with chemical agents twice by Captain Harrell (with the second spraying taking place 15–30 minutes after the first spraying, without any decontamination between the two deployments). Crediting Williams’ version of events at summary judgment, the court held that Captain Harrell’s use of pepper spray was not penologically justified and constituted excessive force.

Williams also asserted that the warden committed an Eighth Amendment violation by failing to intervene and protect him against the use of excessive force by Captain Harrell and Officer Rickman. Williams conceded that he did not see the warden at his door when the incident occurred, and the undisputed relevant facts indicate that the warden was not present at the cell when the use of force occurred. The court held that because the warden was not in a position to intervene in the excessive use of force, he cannot be held liable for failure to intervene.

In sum, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the warden, vacated the district court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Captain Harrell and Officer Rickman, and remanded for further proceedings.

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