Ark. Police Granted Qualified Immunity in Man's Hypothermia Death

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on July 29, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Qualified immunity is the boon of government entities facing civil rights lawsuits under 42 USC § 1983. The hallmark of qualified immunity is that it "provides ample protection to all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." It's designed to shield the government -- which usually ends up meaning "police officers" -- when government agents make honest mistakes about unsettled legal issues.

Now you can add this to the canon of acceptable police practice: Dropping off a questionably drunk man in the middle of the night in freezing weather and hoping everything goes swell.

Spoiler alert: The man died of hypothermia.

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Gladden v. Richbourg: Background

Police responded to a 911 call from a Waffle House near Little Rock, Arkansas. There they met 37-year-old Bradley "Scotty" Gladden, who was "mildly intoxicated" (according to one officer) and a little beaten up, having been attacked earlier that night.

Police offered him an ambulance, which he declined. Instead, Gladden asked if they could take him to his sister's house. Of course, they couldn't do that, but they could drop him off at the county line. That seemed like a fine idea to Gladden. By then, it was after midnight and the temperature was around 30 degrees. Police let him out of the car at the county line and told him to inquire at a nearby factory where the nearest gas station was.

Gladden was found dead the next morning, as Little Rock's KLRT-TV reported. An autopsy determined he'd suffered hypothermia. Far from being "mildly intoxicated," his BAC was 0.34 percent, a contributing factor to the hypothermia.

Show's Over, No Duties to See Here

The Eighth Circuit found no liability in this case, Gladden v. Richbourg, under a "special relationship" theory because Gladden took a ride with the officers voluntarily. Nor were officers held to the high standard of care afforded people in their custody; basically, Gladden would have been better off if the officers had arrested him first and then decided to leave him in the cold at night in an undeveloped area.

The court was also dismissive of the claim that Gladden was so intoxicated that the officers had a duty to take better care of him. Despite having a BAC of 0.34 percent -- which is approaching a potentially lethal limit -- the court said he wasn't so drunk that "it would have been obvious to the officers that he was incapable of walking to the guard shack at the factory or of making decisions for himself." Curiously, Courthouse News Service reports that Gladden's body was found in the opposite direction of the factory; of course, the police wouldn't have known that. They drove away once he started walking.

The upshot of this case is that qualified immunity is a large hurdle to get over, one that has been getting higher and higher recently. While the court acknowledged that the officers' conduct here was probably negligent (which is as charitable as this opinion got), mere negligence won't keep a civil rights violation in court.

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