Judges from Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to Hear Cases at UB School of Law on Nov. 13

Three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit will sit in session at the UB School of Law on Wednesday, Nov. 13, in the Moot Courtroom. The hearings are set to begin at 9:30 a.m. and will conclude at 11:30 a.m. The public is invited to attend.

generic courtroom photoThe judges, who normally sit in Richmond, Va., will hear three cases: Latson v. Clarke, United States v. Blakeney, and Fijalkowski v. Wheeler. Prof. Greg Dolin has provided summaries of the cases, which are available here. Shorter summaries are presented below, and within each description are links to the briefs and lower court opinions.

Latson v. Clarke, No. 18–2457

Reginald Cornelius Latson — a former inmate at the Virginia Department of Corrections — has sued the Department alleging a violation of his civil rights under the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the federal Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Plaintiff alleged that he suffers from Autism Spectrum Disorder and an intellectual disability, with an IQ of 61. These conditions limit his major life activities of learning, concentrating, communicating, interacting with others, caring for himself, and working.

According to Mr. Latson, despite these conditions, the Defendants (who were aware of his limitations) subjected him to solitary confinement and other limitations, including being completely immobilized for more than nine hours, being tasered, being forced to sleep in a cell that contained only a mattress and a hole in the floor for a toilet, and being deprived of sensory stimuli like reading materials, television, or means of tracking time. In total, the Plaintiff spent 182 (non–consecutive) days in solitary confinement and only 62 (non–consecutive) days in general population.

Based on these facts, the Plaintiff alleges that the Defendants violated his right to be free from “cruel and unusual punishment,” because they acted with a “deliberate indifference” to his health issues and to the psychological damage that solitary confinement would have on him.

In response, the Defendants argue that the prison mental health staff always have an individualized approach towards inmates like Mr. Latson, with the goal of integrating them into the general population. Most importantly, the Defendants argue that whatever the veracity of Mr. Latson’s allegations, they are entitled to qualified immunity from suit because the right to be free from the conditions of confinement that the Plaintiff was subjected to was not “clearly established” at the time the alleged violation occurred. The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff’s rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right.

The District Court granted summary judgment to the Defendants, agreeing with their qualified immunity argument. The Plaintiff appeals. Read the District Court Opinion, Appellant Opening Brief, Appellee Brief, and Appellant Reply Brief.

United States v. Blakeney, No. 18–4921

Following a crash on Suitland Parkway — a federally managed road — which resulted in the death of a passenger in the car driven by Stephonze Blakeney, Mr. Blakeney was convicted of homicide by motor vehicle, reckless driving, and driving without a license. He was sentenced to a 40-month term of imprisonment.

In prosecuting Mr. Blakeney, the Government relied on the results of blood analysis, as well as the data from Mr. Blakeney’s car’s electronic data recorder (“black box”). This evidence was gathered pursuant to two separate warrants that were issued on the basis of affidavits by the U.S. Park Police officer, who averred that Mr. Blakeley had “a heavy odor of alcohol and possibly PCP,” “was combative and had to be restrained,” and that his car crossed the center median and struck an oncoming vehicle.

The analysis of Mr. Blakeney’s blood showed that he had blood alcohol level of 0.07. The forensic analysis of the car’s black box indicated that five seconds before impact it was travelling at 83 mph, and at 0.1 seconds before impact it was travelling 68 mph.  The posted speed limit on the road where the accident occurred is 45 mph.

Mr. Blakeney moved to suppress the evidence gathered from the two searches, arguing that the government misled the court by failing to disclose that the odor of alcohol could have been coming from Mr. Blakeney’s passenger. The Government argues that the blood-draw warrant was amply supported by probable cause, and in any event was not necessary under the “exigent circumstances” doctrine. The Government is contending that once it appeared to the police that someone had been drinking, it meant that there was a “fair probability” that that someone was the Defendant. This, in Government’s view, was sufficient for a probable cause finding.

With respect to the warrant for the search of the vehicle’s “black box,” the Government is arguing that the affidavit used to secure the warrant provided sufficient information about crimes being investigated, specified that Mr. Blakeney’s car was “at fault” because it crossed the double yellow line, and was limited to the data regarding the crash and did not extend to extraneous information.

The trial court denied both motions to suppress and Mr. Blakeney appeals. Read the  Appellant Opening Brief, Appellee Brief, and Appellant Reply Brief.

Fijalkowski v. Wheeler, No. 19-1262

The Plaintiff, Mateusz Fijalkowski, was in the United States on a short-term work visa. During that time he was employed as an assistant pool manager in Fairfax County, Virginia. At one point during his stay, and while on the job, he suffered a psychotic episode and the police were called to the scene. The police responded by cordoning off the pool and keeping all visitors away from the scene of the ongoing medical emergency.  The only people left around the pool were Mr. Fijalkowski, the pool lifeguard, and the police officers.

The police attempted to communicate with Mr. Fijalkowski, but given his mental state and limited English abilities, they were unsuccessful in doing so. The pool staff informed the police that Mr. Fijalkowski can’t swim. Mr. Fijalkowski’s erratic behavior culminated in walking into the deep end of the pool and submerging himself. Eventually Mr. Fijalkowski vomited in the water and began drowning. The police, lifeguard and bystanders observed all of these events, but the officers directed the lifeguard and others to postpone taking Mr. Fijalkowski out of the water.

Ultimately, Mr. Fijalkowski was submerged for 2-1/2 minutes before the police permitted the pool lifeguard to rescue him. When he was taken out of the water, Mr. Fijalkowski was not breathing and had no pulse. Fortunately, the EMTs who arrived on the scene were able to revive him with a help of a defibrillator. A video of the episode can be observed here. (Caution: content is disturbing.)

The Plaintiff sued the officers who prevented the timely rescue, alleging that by their active interference they deprived him of his liberty without the constitutionally required due process of law. Although the Plaintiff recognizes that, generally speaking, police officers are not constitutionally obligated to help individuals in distress, he argues that by preventing others from helping him, the police created the situation that placed his life in danger. Mr. Fijalkowski also alleged a state–law claim of gross negligence.

The Defendants argue that Mr. Fijalkowski has failed to state a legally cognizable due-process claim because the police didn’t do much more than fail to render help for a brief period of time. According to the Defendants, absent an intent to harm the Plaintiff, no claim of due process violation can be maintained. Additionally, the Defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity because the right that the Plaintiff asserts was not “clearly established.”

With respect to Mr. Fijalkowski’s claim of gross negligence, the Defendants argue that the claim is barred by the fact that Mr. Fijalkowski attempted to commit suicide (which is still a common law crime in Virginia) and therefore cannot benefit from his own illegal conduct. To the extent that his conduct is excused by the psychotic episode, the Defendants argue that Mr. Fijalkowski’s claim still fails because the officers owed no duty to the Plaintiff, and in any event, the lack of rescue did not amount to indifference or complete neglect of plaintiff’s safety (the standard for such claims in Virginia).

The District Court dismissed Mr. Fijalkowski’s suit, prompting the present appeal. Read the District Court Opinion, Appellant Opening Brief, Appellee Brief, and Appellant Reply Brief.

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