Wednesday, July 23, 2014

8th Circuit upholds decision for NLR police in hypothermia death

Posted By on Wed, Jul 23, 2014 at 12:24 PM

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today upheld a lower court decision in favor of North Little Rock police officers Kenneth Richbourg and Eric Van Imhoff, who'd dropped Bradley Gladden near a remote interstate exit where he later died of hypothermia.

The officers had responded to a call Dec. 12, 2010 about Gladden from the Waffle House at Prothro Junction. He showed signs of a beating and smelled of alcohol and was well-known to officers from other public intoxication calls. One officer had once taken him to a point near his sister's house in Lonoke County.

That night, Gladden appeared to the officers only mildly intoxicated and again asked for a ride to his sister's house, rather than being jailed. They agreed to take him to the county line (Lonoke is outside their jurisdiction). From the opinion:

Richbourg initially intended to drop Gladden off at the Kerr Road exit near the Lonoke County line. But the Kerr Road exit was isolated and dark, and Richbourg felt it would be unsafe to leave Gladden there. Richbourg instead proceeded to the next exit, the Remington Road exit, and let Gladden out there.

The temperature outside was between 25 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit when Gladden exited Richbourg’s squad car at the Remington Road exit. The lights of the nearby Remington Arms factory shone a few hundred feet away. Aside from the factory the area was completely undeveloped.

Gladden asked Richbourg to direct him to the nearest gas station. Richbourg was unsure where the nearest gas station was, but he told Gladden to seek assistance at a guard station at the factory. The station itself was not visible from the Remington Road exit; it lay on the opposite end of a fenced-in parking lot, about a thousand feet from where Gladden stood as the crow flies, and about a half mile by foot. A guard on duty that night testified by affidavit that the guard station was operational and that the guards would have assisted Gladden had he approached the station. After Gladden started walking in the direction of the guard station, Richbourg departed the intersection and returned to North Little Rock.

Gladden was found dead at approximately 10:37 a.m. the next morning. The cause of death was environmental hypothermia, with intoxication as a contributing factor (his blood alcohol content was .34). Gladden’s body was found in the grass at a closed weigh station along Interstate 40, about a half mile from where Richbourg had left him, in the opposite direction of the factory.

Gladden's estate sued, but District Judge Brian Miller dismissed the case. He found the officers were entitled to qualified and official immunity and he said the North Little Rock police chief also had official immunity. Under the standard, the officers could be liable only for clear violations of Gladden's constitutional rights.

The suit argued that Gladden's rights were violated because he was drunk and unable to fend for himself. But the court said private citizens don't have a constitutional right to police assistance. If the officers had simply driven by the Remington Road exit and seen Gladden out in the cold, they would have been under no duty to rescue him, the court said. In this case, the court acknowledged, the officers transported him there. But, it commented, "Gladden voluntarily accepted the ride to the Remington Road exit and was sober enough to make this decision rationally." The officers' actions may have been negligent, considering all factors that night, but "not so reckless that it shocks the conscience of the court."

The opinion included a finding that the estate wasn't entitled to a claim under state law either.

Here's the full opinion.

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