This past summer, the Supreme Court issued another decision in the long line of cases involving qualified immunity defenses and section 1983 suits. The case arose out of the State of Alabama, where Hope had been a prisoner and was handcuffed twice in 1995 to a hitching post as punishment for disruptive conduct at the jail. The hitch was above shoulder height and during the first instance he remained there for two hours where he was given breaks every 15 minutes. During the second instance, after he had fought with a guard, he was placed on the post for seven hours and forced to expose his chest to direct sun, while only receiving one to two water breaks and no bathroom breaks. A guard was noted to taunt him about thirst during this instance.
Hope sued, charging a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The trial judge did not address this issue, but found that the guards were entitled to qualified immunity for their actions. The appellate court did hold that the use of the post for punitive purposes did violate the Eighth Amendment, but that the guards were still entitled to qualified immunity as the plaintiff had failed to show that there were any federal cases with materially similar facts by which the court could evaluate the defendants' conduct. The Supreme Court reversed this decision.
The Supreme Court held that qualified immunity as a defense should have been precluded at the summary judgment phase. They affirmed the appellate court's finding that the hitching post use violated the Eighth Amendment. They further opined that the officers acted with deliberate indifference to Hope's health and safety when they put him on the post the second time because he had already been handcuffed, subdued and leg shackled, leaving no real emergency to the situation.
Regarding the application of qualified immunity due to the lack of cases which spoke to this exact factual scenario, the court expressly disagreed. They indicated that the immunity afforded in a section 1983 situation would be akin to the situation in a suit where a federal official was charged with acting willfully and under the color of state law to deprive a plaintiff of his or her constitutional rights. (18 USC ' 242). A 1997 case made it clear that officials sued under 242 could be held to be on notice of their conduct violating established law, even in novel factual scenarios. That court had specifically rejected a requirement that the cases be "fundamentally similar." They indicated that the appellate court should have asked the question of whether the state of the law in 1995 gave the defendants fair warning that the treatment they gave Hope was unconstitutional.
Addressing this very question, the Supreme Court held that any reasonable officer would have known that the use of the hitching post as alleged was unconstitutional and the practice had "obvious inherent cruelty." They also pointed to precedent within Alabama's circuit which would put the officers on notice, including the Gates case of 1974, which specifically held that handcuffing prisoners to fences or cells for long periods of time was impermissible. Another case from 1987, Ort v. White, held that physical abuse directed at a prisoner after he terminated resistance would give rise to liability under the Eighth Amendment.
This case can be located at <www.findlaw.com> by clicking on "Supreme Court Cases" and looking under the alphabetical listing for "2002 decisions" for Hope v. Pelzer. The majority opinion was written by Justice Stevens, joined by Justices O'Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion which was joined by Justices Rehnquist, and Scalia. (6-3 decision).