A short report over the weekend in The Oregonian regarding an inmate death at Multnomah County’s Inverness jail could mark the beginning of a series of lengthy legal questions. According to the newspaper an inmate “was found dead inside a cell Saturday, according to the county sheriff’s office.” The paper adds that the county medical examiner has begun an investigation.
From this seemingly straightforward beginning there is the potential for significant legal claims to develop. Life in prison, or even in a shorter-term facility like a county jail, can often be difficult and harsh. Many Americans do not take issue with this reality. That essentially political view, however, does not change the fact that when the government at any level takes control of every aspect of an individual’s life by placing them in custody it also takes on certain responsibilities. Leaving aside the quite significant fact that people in custody who have not been convicted of a crime (which is a substantial portion of those in custody at any given moment) remain innocent until proven guilty, there is the equally important fact that the state has a duty of care for those in imprisons even after they have been found guilty of a crime.
A key statute that applies to cases like these, and the legal actions for wrongful death that can sometimes emerge from deaths in custody, is 42 United States Code 1983, a short paragraph that “is invoked so frequently that it is often simply referred to as ‘Section 1983’” according to an analysis published in the Santa Clara Law Review.
The journal article notes (see link below for the complete text): “Section 1983 is one of several Reconstruction-era statutes enacted in response to the corrupting influence of the Ku Klux Klan and its sympathizers on the governments and law enforcement agencies of the southern states. Although the statute’s coverage clearly extends to other protected classes as well 1983 was clearly intended to deter ‘officially condoned lawless conduct directed against newly-freed blacks by creating what is essentially a tort remedy in favor of persons deprived of their federal civil rights.’ As one court observed, ‘Broadly described, the intent of Sect 1983 was to create a civil remedy for persons who prove that one acting under color of state law has illegally deprived them of rights guaranteed by the federal constitution or federal law.’”
The obvious question a layperson might ask is why a Reconstruction-era civil rights statute might apply to a county jail death in Oregon in 2016. The equally simple answer is that when a person in state custody dies or is injured that is a matter of state responsibility be it in 19th century Alabama or 21st century Oregon.
As a lawyer practicing in both Oregon and Washington I see cases every week that, at their core, involve questions of the use of government power. Looking at this particular case there are some very basic facts that need to be established: was the Multnomah Sheriff’s office meeting its responsibilities to provide proper care of the inmates in its custody? This is especially important when one considers the fact that prison populations are widely known to include men and women with both physical and mental health issues. Was medical assistance available to the deceased inmate? Were the inmate checks by the guards frequent and thorough enough to ensure that care could be provided when and where necessary?
From a legal perspective the thing that connects a Civil War-era law to modern-day Oregon is the responsibility it establishes for officials to do their jobs properly. Equally important are other legal precedents, including a 1978 case known as Davis v Oregon State University, that establish that a claim for damages, including pain and suffering, can continue beyond a person’s death.
It is important to note that this case is still at a quite early stage, but all of these are issues that the family of the deceased Multnomah County inmate will need to consider in the days and weeks to come.
Davis v Oregon State University (591 F.2nd 493) at OpenJurist
Santa Clara Law Review (Vol 40, No 2; 2000): For Whom the Bell Tolls: A Decedent’s Right to 1983 Pain and Suffering Damages in the Ninth Circuit