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Confusion in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals: Grayson v. Ross

[Ed's note: Last week I discussed the difference between factual and legal questions, and noted why issues of mental states are inherently factual questions.  Today I'll show that the Eighth Circuit confused the legal-factual distinction in a civil rights case.  This is a long post, but worth the read even if you're not interested in civil rights issues.]

The mens rea of a Fourteenth Amendment violation is deliberate indifference.
Under well-established Section 1983 doctrine, a police officer can be held liable for denying a sick person medical care only when the the plaintiff establishes the "the mens rea requirement of deliberate indifference."  To show that a police officer was deliberately indifferent, the plaintiff must show that through more than mere negligence, the officer has a (1) subjective knowledge of a risk of serious harm; and (2) he disregards that risk.  A plaintiff establishes the "the mens rea requirement of deliberate indifference," much in the same way that prosecutors establish the mens rea of criminal offenses - through circumstantial evidence.

The reason I note that deliberate indifference is the mens rea of the plaintiff's case is simple: Mental states are presumptively factual questions.  Yet, when framing the issues during summary judgment and appeal, judges often act as triers-of-fact.  This is the improper approach.

Thus, a trial court should grant the defendant's motion for summary judgment in cases where deliberate indifference is at issue, only after going through a clear analytical process.  Namely, the trial court (and, if on appeal, the reviewing court) should ask: Could no reasonable jury conclude, based on the plaintiff's allegations, that the officer knew the plaintiff faced a serious risk of harm?

The Eighth Circuit fails to properly analyze the deliberate-indifferent standard in Fourteenth Amendment case.
In Grayson v. Ross, police officer "Michael Sharum responded to an accident report involving a vehicle in a creek. He found Grayson standing next to the creek, soaking wet, and reporting that his vehicle was going to 'blow up.'"  When Sharum asked Grayson for ID, Grayson said: "“F*** you! Leave me alone. It’s going to blow up."  There was nothing in the record to indicate that the car was going to blow up.  (In his police report, Sharum observed that Grayson seemed to be hallucinating.)  After a struggle, Sharum hit Grayson on the head with a gun.  Sharum then drove Grayson to the jail.

While at the jail, Ross was quiet and didn't stir, as he was barely lucid.  When a jailer "asked him if he had been doing drugs, and he replied that he had lost something."  The jailer thus refused to process Grayson into jail. 

When the jailer refused to book Grayson into jail, Sarum: "Well, Gena, do you know how long it will take me to have to do this?"  The jailer then called Grayson's mother.  The mother told Sharum that Grayson was using meth. After being booked into jail, Grayson died.

The panel's conclusory - and improperly directed - analysis.
Dismissing the case, Judge Beam wrote for the panel:

Under step two of the deliberate indifference inquiry, Sharum knew that Grayson was likely under the influence of methamphetamine, but the record reflects Sharum was unsure whether Grayson was hallucinating. Therefore, Sharum did not subjectively know that Grayson required medical attention.  

Why was Sharum "unsure whether Grayson was hallucinating?"  The panel said that the "record reflect[ed]" that.  Really? 

No, not really.  As noted, the record reflected that Grayson kept saying that his car, which was in the water, was going to blow up - even though nothing in reality supported that belief.  But most damning is this: When the jailer refused to book Grayson into jail, look at Sharum's response.  It was not, most empathically: "There is nothing wrong with him."  Rather, it was: "Well, Gena, do you know how long it will take me to have to do this?" That is the statement of someone who realizes there is a risk, but just doesn't want to deal with it.  That was a plea for mercy, not an argument over the facts.

Of course, you might disagree with my interpretation of the facts.  No matter.

The issue is whether no reasonable jury  could have concluded that Sharum knew Grayson was hallucinating when a) Grayson kept saying his car was going to blow up, b) Sharum noted that Grayson was likely hallucinating and c) the jailer told Sharum that Grayson was in need of serious medical care.

Unfortunately, the panel of judges, rather than sticking to questions of law, delved into questions of fact.