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Mecklenburg Jailhouse Blues

Inmate lawsuits allege unprovoked, severe beatings at Jail Central

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"I was afraid he was going to assault me again," Richardson wrote. "I jumped back when he flinched at me as if to hit me. I swung at him from reflex. We scuffled for about 20 seconds. His assigned partner Detention Officer Moore came in to assist him and they had me laying on my stomach, not resisting."

Richardson, who was incarcerated at the jail on robbery charges, says other detention officers, including Sergeant James Elkins and a detention officer by the last name of Smith entered the cell and kicked him in the head and the face. When they were through beating him, Smith took him to "medical" for treatment of his two busted lips, swollen nose and chipped tooth.

Because he couldn't afford a lawyer, Richardson represented himself and quickly lost the case. US District Court Chief Judge Graham Mullen dismissed Richardson's case against Darlington and the other officers because Richardson "had not exhausted his administrative remedies," for complaining to jail officials about the alleged beating before filing the case in court.

Immune DeficiencyOld legal quirk may give sheriffs free reinAs inmatesacross the country have learned, successfully suing a public official, and in particular a sheriff, for beatings or other abuse they've suffered in the country's jails is about as easy as running a marathon on one leg. There are often so many legal hurdles to cross before a jury can even hear your case, it almost seems as if it's not worth the effort to sue, no matter how many gory pictures you have of what detention officers did to you.

If the average guy on the street beat someone else senseless for no particular reason and the victim could prove it, the odds are that a jury would award the victim a large sum of money. But when the folks allegedly doing the beating are sheriff's deputies, and when the person to whom they answer is the sheriff, then legally speaking, the rules of the game are completely different.

It all goes back to a concept in English common law called sovereign immunity that essentially says that government officials can't be sued for their actions, no matter how much damage they cause. Because most states, including North Carolina, have statutes that say that the common law is enforced unless changed or abrogated, and because the NC legislature has never passed a law abolishing sovereign immunity, it still applies here.

Further complicating matters are the various shades of sovereign immunity. In one prisoner beating case filed against Pendergraph and his employees, their attorney argued that they are entitled to qualified immunity on the federal claims against them, public official immunity on the state law claims against them, and barred from recovering any damages under state law by sovereign immunity.

Since sovereign and other official types of immunities are afforded to state officials, sheriffs around the country started arguing that they were state officials and thus entitled to immunity from lawsuits related to their professional performances. The issue is still undecided in North Carolina, where some judges have ruled that sheriffs are state officials and others have ruled that they're not.

The US District Court for the District of North Carolina has said that in suits under federal civil law, the county sheriff is a local official who doesn't possess Eleventh Amendment immunity from a suit in federal court. Attorneys for Pendergraph have argued that that decision was invalidated by a subsequent decision by an NC appellate court that a North Carolina sheriff and his deputies function as state officials.

In suits filed by former inmates of Mecklenburg County Jail Central, one judge, Graham Mullen, bought Sheriff Jim Pendergraph's argument that he's a state official and thus is immune from being sued. In another case in which the same legal arguments were made, Judge Richard Voorhees ruled that Pendergraph isn't a state official. To further complicate matters, some judges are accepting the idea that the ruling in an Alabama case called McMillian v. Monroe County, in which the US Supreme Court decided that a local sheriff was a state employee, applies to similar legal questions in North Carolina. Others aren't.

"They are trying to broaden what the Supreme Court has actually said in McMillian and make it a badge of immunity for sheriffs everywhere rather than a very fact-specific, Alabama-specific ruling," said Amy Fettig, a litigation fellow with the ACLU who represents inmates in abuse cases against prison officials.


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