People For the American Way

Trump Judge Gives Immunity to Jail Officials in Death of a New Mexico Man: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

News and Analysis
Trump Judge Gives Immunity to Jail Officials in Death of a New Mexico Man: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

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.

With Trump judge Joel Carson casting the deciding vote, a Tenth Circuit panel ruled that several county jail officials could not be held accountable in court for failing to treat a man’s opioid withdrawal, which led to his death. The August 2020 case was Quintana v. Santa Fe County Board of Commissioners.

Ricardo Jose Ortiz was arrested in January 2016 for stealing a handbag and booked into a New Mexico county jail. From his arrival. he told security and medical personnel that he was in withdrawal. They knew he already had a serious liver disease, he appeared “severely ill” early on, and he expressed concern about his health. But he did not receive the medical care he needed, even when he began to vomit blood. On his fourth day in the facility, he was found dead in his cell, lying naked with blood and feces on the floor, the wall, his clothes, and his face and body.

His family sued several security and medical personnel at the jail in their personal capacities, arguing they did not have qualified immunity because they had shown deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs in violation of Ortiz’s clear constitutional rights. Subsequently, the family filed a second complaint adding the county government as a defendant and—importantly for this case—clarifying some of the details of their allegations against the jail personnel. But the district court denied the family’s motion to amend their original complaint, and it dismissed all the charges against the individual jail employees based on qualified immunity.

On appeal, the majority that Carson joined analyzed the question of qualified immunity based only on what the family alleged in their first complaint. They ruled that the lower court should have allowed the amendment, but only so as to add the county as a party. With regard to the complaints against the individual jail personnel, the majority characterized the second complaint as having not been intended by the family to cure any deficiencies in the first complaint and therefore not relevant to the circuit court’s consideration of qualified immunity.  Without the key details included in the second complaint, the panel upheld the dismissal of the cases against all but one of the jail employees.

Judge Robert Bacharach dissented, explaining that the family did not just “idly propose” the amendments. In fact, they had told the district court the purpose was to “clarify allegations” that the individual defendants had claimed were obscure or had misinterpreted altogether. Bacharach pointed out that the employees themselves interpreted the allegations in the complaint as clarifications and accordingly responded to them. He sharply criticized the Carson majority for acting on its own initiative to “completely disregard” the allegations in the family’s second complaint.


abuse of authority, Confirmed Judges Confirmed Fears, Joel Carson, Lower Federal Courts, qualified immunity, Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals