Trent Taylor was a psychiatric prisoner in a Texas. For six days, prison guards removed all his clothes and locked him in a cell contaminated with fecal matter. Every part of the cell was contaminated: floor, walls, window, and ceiling. The water faucet was even packed with fecal matter. Taylor was unable to eat or drink for four days.
Taylor was then moved to a second cell that was extremely cold. The drain in the floor was clogged. There was no toilet or bed in the cell. Taylor held his bladder as long as possible, but when he was forced to relieve himself, he was forced to sleep in his own bladder waste.
Taylor sued the guards for cruel and unusual punishment. On appeal, the US Circuit Court for the Fifth Circuit agreed with Taylor that this was cruel and unusual punishment. But they ruled that since there was no case law clearly prohibiting this specific abuse, the guards were protected by “qualified immunity.” The doctrine of qualified immunity protects public officials (often law enforcement officers) from civil liability for violating someone’s rights–unless there is a clear legal precedent that the specific behavior was prohibited. So, the Court held that while the guards’ behavior was a violation of Taylor’s constitutional rights, Taylor could not proceed with his case against them.*
Was justice done? How specific do laws or rules have to be to hold a public official accountable? What rationale might we have as a country for protecting governmental employees from liability even if their actions break the law? Qualified immunity is frequently used as a defense in civil suits brought against governmental employees. With growing concerns about police violence, there increasing calls to remove or reform this protection.
Just imagine if common sense judgment were the basis of deciding whether persons should be given immunity for acts that are clearly cruel and unusual. What sense does it make to require such granular detail in legal precedents establishing the illegality of the specific act? What actions should we take to better ensure that individual public officials act in way that avoids infringing constitutional or statutory rights to begin with? Should an individual need a specific rule or law to tell them something is cruel and unusual? Just imagine how we might focus more on human values rather than legal structures in the guidance we give to those working in our name as government employees.
*In November 2020, the US Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit and held that the doctrine of qualified immunity did not apply in this case because,, “No reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time.”
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“In my case, I learned that although God loves us, he doesn’t grant us immunity from the consequences of our choices.” — Donna Rice (CEO and president of Enough is Enough)
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.