Ninth Circuit Again Requires Police Officers To Step Into The Shoes Of Mental Health Professionals

In Horton v. City of Santa Maria, the Ninth Circuit demonstrated its understanding that the qualified immunity analysis (which is where an officer may be immune for damages if his or her conduct is not clearly unlawful) is highly specific to the factual scenario presented in each case and reversed the district court when it found an officer was entitled to qualified immunity.

Given recent Ninth Circuit holdings involving the affirmative defense of qualified immunity, Horton is certainly a step in the right direction. But this step is undercut by what seems to be a forging theme for the Ninth Circuit – a requirement that law enforcement have the knowledge and insights of mental health professionals.

The Facts:

In 2012, the plaintiff was arrested and taken to the local police department. An hour and a half after the plaintiff was placed in a holding cell, the plaintiff was interviewed by Officer Brice and denied having medical conditions. Officer Brice returned the plaintiff back to the holding cell and gave him an opportunity to speak to his mother. During the call, the plaintiff’s mother informed the plaintiff that she would not bail him out of jail. Officer Brice then called the plaintiff’s mother to speak to her privately. He spoke to her for approximately 15 minutes and she stated, among other things, that the plaintiff attempted to commit suicide two weeks prior and expressed concern for his well-being. After the call, Officer Brice completed the necessary paperwork to transport the plaintiff to jail. When Officer Brice returned to the plaintiff’s holding cell, about 27 minutes after he had left the plaintiff, the plaintiff had hung himself. The plaintiff suffered permanent brain damage, and it was later determined that by the time that Officer Brice had finished the call with the plaintiff’s mother, the plaintiff had already hung himself.

The plaintiff (through his mother) sued Officer Brice[1] and alleged Section 1983 claims as well state law claims, including California Government Code § 845.6, which creates liability when a prison official knows or reasonably should know, that a prisoner requires immediate medical care and fails to provide said care. On summary judgment, the district court denied Officer Brice qualified immunity from the plaintiff’s Section 1983 claims and held a reasonable jury could find that Officer Brice was liable under Section 845.6.

The Ninth Circuit Found Officer Brice Is Entitled To Qualified Immunity

To determine whether Officer Brice was entitled to qualified immunity from the plaintiff’s Section 1983 claims, the Ninth Circuit narrowly framed the issue as follows:  “[G]iven the available case law [in 2012],  [would] a reasonable officer, knowing what Officer Brice knew, [] have understood that failing to check on [the plaintiff] immediately after the phone call with [the plaintiff’s mother] presented such a substantial risk of harm to [the plaintiff] that the failure to act was unconstitutional[?]”

In response to its question, the Ninth Circuit held “no” a reasonable officer would not have known. In reaching its conclusion, the Ninth Circuit highlighted that there were no cases directly on point with the facts of this matter. In other words, there were no other cases where a detainee attempted suicide after the detainee denied having medical conditions, the detainee acted in a cooperative manner throughout his arrest and detention, and the detainee’s girlfriend reported the detainee’s violent nature but never mentioned the detainee’s suicidal ideations.

However, The Ninth Circuit Agreed That A Jury Could Find Officer Brice Liable Under Section 845.6

The Ninth Circuit did not, however, reverse the district court’s finding that a reasonable jury could find that Officer Brice had reason to know the plaintiff faced a substantial risk of attempting suicide and failed to take reasonable action to summon immediate mental health care. The Ninth Circuit opined that a jury could find Officer Brice knew of the plaintiff’s need for mental health care based on the plaintiff’s mother’s description of the plaintiff’s prior attempt to commit suicide. Additionally, the Ninth Circuit stated “’immediate’ does not signify urgent; rather, the obligation to summon immediate medical care requires that the public employee act in a ‘timely’ manner, so as to prevent further injury.”

The Takeaway: Mental Health Training For Law Enforcement Is Critical

Officer Brice is victorious in that the Ninth Circuit dismissed the Section 1983 claim against him that carried the weight of attorneys’ fees (plaintiffs’ attorneys are awarded attorneys’ fees if they are successful on Section 1983 claims). However, the Ninth Circuit again impliedly created a difficult standard that law enforcement steps into the shoes of mental health professionals. Namely, given the plaintiff denied having a medical condition and did not outwardly display signs that he intended to harm himself, how would Officer Brice have known that there was an immediate risk that the plaintiff would hurt himself absent specific training related mental health, the signs of suicidal behavior, depression, etc.? While Officer Brice knew the plaintiff had attempted to commit suicide two weeks prior, there was no indication the plaintiff had a similar plan while he was in the holding cell. And, how is returning to the plaintiff after 27 minutes not timely? The plaintiff’s own mother, who knew more facts about her son than Officer Brice, did not even plan to bail him out. Ultimately, this case highlights the importance of routine mental health and crisis intervention training as the Ninth Circuit seems to be requiring law enforcement have particularized knowledge of mental health issues.

[1] The plaintiff brought claims against other individually named officers and the municipality. The focus of this post is the claims against Officer Brice.

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