High Court Vacates Immunity In Prison Guard Mace Case

By Emma Whitford | February 22, 2021, 2:59 PM EST

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday vacated a Fifth Circuit ruling that had granted immunity to a Texas prison guard who allegedly pepper-sprayed an inmate in the face in 2016, citing a November decision that found prison officers liable for obviously egregious behavior.

Granting certiorari to Prince McCoy Sr., the high court directed the Fifth Circuit to reconsider its February 2020 decision granting qualified immunity to Darrington Unit Officer Tajudeen Alamu. The justices directed the circuit court to reconsider "in light of" Taylor v. Riojas , a rare qualified immunity reversal from last fall.

In Taylor, the Supreme Court ruled that a group of officers at the Montford Psychiatric Unit in Lubbock, Texas, were not immune from prosecution for keeping inmate Trent Taylor in an excrement-strewn cell in 2013. The alleged acts were obviously unconstitutional, and courts don't need a case with matching facts in order to proceed, the justices found.

For McCoy's supporters and attorneys, Monday's vacatur shows that the precedent enforced in Taylor is having a broader impact on how the Supreme Court implements its own principle of qualified immunity, which limits civil rights lawsuits against government officials.

Elizabeth Cruikshank is a managing associate at Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP and board member at Rights Behind Bars, which represents McCoy. She also helped represent Taylor before the Supreme Court last year.

"I think that when the Taylor opinion came out, we were thrilled both for our client and for the possibility that it might signal a change in the way the Supreme Court treats qualified immunity," Cruikshank told Law360 on Monday. "And I think what the McCoy [vacatur] signals is that we were right in that optimism, that the court might be backing off the requirement that plaintiffs show a perfect one-to-one parallel to a case before they could overcome qualified immunity."

McCoy's court battle goes back to 2017, when he filed a pro se complaint in the Southern District of Texas alleging excessive force in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

According to court records, Officer Alamu sprayed McCoy "directly in the face with mace" the prior December at the Rosharon, Texas, facility, taking out his frustration on McCoy, who has asthma, after an inmate in a neighboring cell splashed the officer with water multiple times.

The district court ruled in favor of Alamu, saying McCoy had failed to establish that the alleged assault was excessive or malicious and that his injuries were minor, court records show.

McCoy then appealed to the Fifth Circuit, which found that Alamu had qualified immunity, in part because his alleged acts failed to meet all of the so-called Hudson factors for cruel and unusual punishment.

In Hudson v. McMillian , a Louisiana inmate claimed he was beaten by two prison guards. The Supreme Court ruled on the case in 1992, establishing a five-part test to determine when use of force amounts to cruel and unusual punishment if the victim is not seriously injured.

McCoy subsequently secured nonprofit legal representation for his July certiorari petition.

In the petition, McCoy focused on Fifth Circuit Judge Gregg Costa's dissenting opinion, in which he argued his colleagues put too much emphasis on the lack of case law involving allegations of a pepper spray attack, specifically.

"Had McCoy been punched in the face for no reason or tased for no reason, rather than maced in the face for no reason, on-point circuit precedent would have clearly established the constitutional violation," McCoy argued. "As Judge Costa explained in dissent, an alternative explanation for the panel majority's break from this court's precedent is that Alamu's unprovoked assault simply involved the wrong weapon."

This is misguided logic that creates a circuit split, McCoy continued, as "there is no requirement that a constitutional violation be weapon-specific" and "defining Eighth Amendment violations weapon-by-weapon and granting qualified immunity to defendants using novel weaponry would also break from the other circuits that have considered the question."

Opposing McCoy's petition in December, the Texas Attorney General's Office dismissed McCoy's petition as an "unadorned request for fact-bound error correction," saying the lower court correctly applied the Hudson factors.  

But the Supreme Court did not mention Hudson on Monday, instead focusing on the precedent for egregious unconstitutional force in Taylor. 

Celebrating the Supreme Court's decision Monday, Sam Weiss of Rights Behind Bars, co-counsel for McCoy, said it "demonstrates that Taylor wasn't a one-off" and that the high court's specific citation of Taylor "is giving a strong nudge as to what the Fifth Circuit should do in this case."

"It's an abominable thing that Mr. McCoy went through for no reason, and he's had to fight, fight, fight for justice," Weiss added.

A representative for the Texas Attorney General's Office did not immediately reply to a request for comment Monday.

McCoy is represented by Samuel Weiss of Rights Behind Bars and Daniel Greenfield of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.

Tajudeen is represented by Judd E. Stone II of the Office of the Texas Attorney General.

The case is McCoy, Prince v. Alamu, Tajudeen, case number 20-31, in the Supreme Court of the United States.

--Editing by Philip Shea.

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