“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Tenth Circuit judge Joel Carson cast the deciding vote to affirm a grant of summary judgment against a claim that officials at a juvenile detention center were deliberately indifferent to threats of violence that led to an attack on a 14 year-old pretrial detainee at the center. The July 2020 case is Contreras v. Dona Ana Board of County Commissioners.
One evening in 2016, a fourteen-year-old boy identified as A.L. was booked into the Dona Ana County Detention Center (DACDC) on charges that he violated his probation by staying out too late. As he was led to his cell, three other detainees began banging on their cell doors and shouting at A.L. that they were “gonna f*** him up.” All three had disciplinary problems “just days and hours” before, including attacking other juvenile detainees.
Restrictions were placed on the three detainees, but the next morning, Sergeant Paco Luna allowed one of them, who he was aware was “not to be trusted outside his cell,” to use a commissary kiosk in a common area just outside where the cells are located. Near the kiosk was a common area where three corrections officers were watching television and there is a touchscreen control panel that controls access to the cells. One of the officers had left the control panel unlocked, even though it takes only the “touch of a button” to lock it. Video showed the detainee looking over his shoulder to see if he was being watched and then leaving the video surveillance area, when he went to the control panel and unlocked the cells. The officers then pursued him while the other two detainees who had threatened A.L. entered his cell and severely beat him. He was “rendered unconscious,” was left “bleeding from both ears,” suffered a “broken jaw,” and was taken to a hospital. Juvenile detainees had improperly accessed the control panel on four prior occasions in the previous eighteen months, leading to assaults several times.
A.L.’s mother Kathy Contreras sued the DACDC and the three officers, contending that they had violated her son’s constitutional rights because of deliberate indifference to the violence threatened against him. The trial court granted summary judgment against her on all claims without trial, including granting qualified immunity to the three officers.
On appeal, all three judges agreed that the two junior officers should have received immunity. But by a 2-1 majority, the Tenth Circuit also affirmed that Sergeant Luna should get immunity and there should be no liability against DACDC.
Trump judge Carson wrote separately to explain his vote. Although he acknowledged that the failure to protect A.L. from the violent assault was “inexcusable” and that there was a “strong case” against supervisor Sergeant Luna, he wrote that there should be no liability because A.L.’s constitutional rights were not “clearly established.” As he concluded, the claim of A.L.’s mother on his behalf “must fail because she cannot show” that the right violated by the defendants “was obvious.”
Judge Bobby Ray Baldock, who was nominated by President Reagan, strongly dissented. It was not necessary to find a previous case exactly like this one to find a “clearly established” constitutional right, he noted. Instead, he explained, prior case law made clear that “corrections officers must employ reasonable measures to mitigate a known risk of serious harm to a threatened detainee”, and that “recklessness” in light of a known risk is enough to establish “deliberate indifference.” Any “reasonable corrections officer in Sergeant Luna’s position would have known his conduct” in failing to secure the control panel in light of the serious threat to A.L. and the other detainees’ past conduct “violated A.L.’s asserted right.” It should be up to a jury at trial, Baldock maintained, to determine whether Luna and DACDC were liable, including liability against DACDC for a “pattern of tortious conduct by inadequately trained employees.”
As a result of Carson’s deciding vote, however, A.L. and his mother will not be able to present their claim against Sergeant Luna and DACDC. The case is yet another example of a Trump judge excusing misconduct by a law enforcement officer based on qualified immunity.