The Supreme Court pushes back against rigid construction of “clearly established law,” remands case where prisoner was maliciously attacked with pepper spray.

It wasn’t Prince McCoy who chucked water at prison guard Tajudeen Alamu. So why did Alamu walk up to McCoy’s cell and deploy a chemical spray on his face and body? According to McCoy, Alamu knew where the prisoner who threw water at him was. But the prisoner, Jackson, had put up a bedsheet so Alamu couldn’t spray him. Frustrated, Alamu walked up to McCoy’s cell and asked him for his name and prison number. As McCoy approached to comply, Alamu attacked him with pepper spray “for no reason at all.”

The Fifth Circuit found that “McCoy’s adequately supported view of the facts… demonstrates a constitutional violation.” But it nonetheless granted summary judgment for Alamu, because while many other unprovoked attacks by state officials had been found to be constitutional violations, “it wasn’t beyond debate that Alamu’s single use of spray” violated clearly established law. The opinion generated a dissent, which criticized the circuit’s decision to grant immunity solely because “the guard used pepper spray instead of a fist, taser, or baton.”

Today, the Supreme Court vacated and remanded that decision for “further consideration in light of Taylor v. Riojas.”  Taylor was another case that reached the Supreme Court from the Fifth Circuit.  In that case, the Fifth Circuit had held that a prisoner forced to remain in a cell “teeming with human waste” for six days could not sue his captors because the Court hadn’t previously found a constitutional violation when someone was held in those conditions for “a time period so short.” The Supreme Court summarily reversed, reasoning that “no reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions.”

The Supreme Court’s remand suggests that it may want the Fifth Circuit to embrace the rule that the law is clearly established when “no reasonable officer” could believe their misconduct to be constitutional.  Taylor and McCoy are both cases where the Fifth Circuit granted qualified immunity to state officials because plaintiffs could not dredge up a prior case with functionally identical facts.  In asking the Fifth Circuit to reconsider McCoy in light of Taylor, the Supreme Court appears to be reasserting that these narrow, fact-matching exercises should be set aside in cases where an official’s misconduct is plainly unreasonable.