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No Qualified Immunity to Trooper Who Failed to Secure Treatment for Arrestee

by Matt Clarke

On April 27, 2016, the Eighth Circuit held that an Arkansas state trooper was not entitled to qualified immunity when he failed to seek medical care for a man he arrested who was exhibiting obvious medical problems and found dead at a detention center a few hours later.

Jeffery Alan Barton was involved in a single-vehicle accident, and Arkansas State Trooper Zachary Owens and other law enforcement officers responded to the scene. They found Barton swaying and using his truck to steady himself; a breath test showed he had a blood alcohol level of .11, and he was arrested DWI.

While he was being searched, Barton fell to the ground and was unresponsive. Malven Arkansas Police Officer Tim Callison checked his pulse. He and Owens carried the unresponsive Barton to Owens’s patrol car.

Owens drove Barton to the Hot Springs County Detention Center. He was unable to respond to questions during booking, and spoke with slurred speech when he spoke at all. At one point, he fell off a bench onto the floor.

Barton could not walk to the holding cell without help from jail trustees. He was found dead in the holding cell a few hours later. An autopsy revealed a small amount of ethanol, a small amount of hydrocodone and a non-lethal amount of an anti-anxiety medication in his blood, but death had been caused by a heart condition – anomalous right coronary artery with fatty infiltration of the right ventricle and atrium.

Barton’s estate filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Owens and other: defendants. The complaint alleged the denial of medical care violated Owens’s Fourth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1991 (ACRA), Ark. Code Ann. § 16-1213-105.

Owens filed a motion to dismiss claiming qualified immunity for the federal claims and statutory immunity for the ACRA claims. The court dismissed the claims against Owens in his official capacity, but otherwise denied the motion. Owens filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Eighth Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision. In doing so, it held that, taking the facts alleged in the complaint as true, “Owens’s failure to take some action to secure medical care for Barton violated Barton’s constitutional rights” because “Barton suffered from an objectively serious medical need,” which should have been obvious to Owens. Further, Owens’s duty to seek medical care was clearly established at the time of the incident.

The court noted that the Arkansas Supreme Court had determined that the statutory immunity claimed by Owens was “similar to that provided by the Supreme Court for civil rights litigants.” Therefore, that claim must fail as well because the court’s determination that Owens acted with deliberate indifference was sufficient to establish an inference malice which negates the statutory immunity. The judgment denying qualified immunity was affirmed.

See: Barton v. Taber, 820 F.3d 958 (8th Cir. 2016), rehearing and rehearing en banc denied.


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Related legal case

Barton v. Taber



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