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Eleventh Circuit rules that leaving a pretrial detainee alone in an un-air-conditioned Sheriff’s van for almost an hour in 85 degree heat was unconstitutional excessive force, but affirms partial dismissal of plaintiff’s civil rights claims because right not to be subjected to such treatment wasn’t clearly established at time of incident

On August 11, 2020, in Patel v. Lanier County Georgia, et al, No. 19-11253, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals addressed two constitutional questions in a civil rights case brought by a Georgia pretrial detainee against a Deputy Sheriff.  The detainee suffered injuries after being left alone in a transport van without any fan or air conditioning for nearly an hour with an outside temperature of at least 85 degrees Fahrenheit.  The plaintiff sued the Deputy Sheriff involved in the incident claiming that he used excessive force and exhibited deliberate indifference to the plaintiff’s medical needs.  The district court dismissed the case on the grounds of qualified immunity.  On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit first distinguished the standard under the 14th Amendment for excessive force claims involving pretrial detainees from claims involving incarcerated prisoners.  The standard applicable to the latter claims is whether the use of force “shocked the conscience” or was “applied maliciously and sadistically to cause harm,” see Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 576 U.S. 389 (2015), whereas 14th Amendment excessive force claims involving pretrial detainees are subject to an “objective reasonableness” standard.  Id. at 396-97.  The Eleventh Circuit acknowledged that it had not confronted a “hot car” case before and while refusing to “lay down a neat rule” identified factors generally relevant to the disposition of such a case.  The Court observed that “[d]etention in harsher conditions may be justified where alternative modes of detention are not readily available, especially if the detainee poses a heightened risk of danger to police or the public; by contrast, where the detainee poses no particular risk or where an alternative is at hand, the ‘need’ for harsher modes of detention dissipates.” In this case, the Court noted that an alternative mode of detention was readily available (the plaintiff could have been left inside the jail) and that the officer had done nothing to ameliorate the plaintiff’s condition, such as turning on the van’s ventilation fan or at least cracking a window.  The plaintiff also posed no apparent security risk.  The Eleventh Circuit consequently concluded that the force applied was  not objectively reasonable and the plaintiff’s 14th Amendment rights were violated. However, the Eleventh Circuit also concluded that since the plaintiff could point to no “materially similar” prior cases, the law on this issue was not “clearly established” at the time of the incident in question.  The Court noted that although constitutional violations do not have to be “clearly established”  for Eighth Amendment excessive force claims involving incarcerated prisoners, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Kingsley ruling made clear that this requirement exists for 14th Amendment excessive force claims. As a result, the Court concluded that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity notwithstanding the 14th Amendment excessive force violation.  The Court did, however, conclude that the plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence to prove his claim that the officer was deliberately indifferent to his medical needs (the officer made no attempt to provide any medical treatment or provide the plaintiff with water during the subsequent two hour drive to the Sheriff’s station).  Regarding whether this violation was “clearly established”, the Court quoted from Ancata v. Prison Health Servs., Inc., 769 F.2d 700, 704 (11th Cir. 1985): “[t]he knowledge of the need for medical care and intentional refusal to provide that care has consistently been held to surpass negligence and constitute deliberate indifference.” The case was consequently affirmed in part and reversed in part and remanded to the district court.