BENTON COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — A federal appeals court ruled that Benton County jail staff have qualified immunity in a lawsuit filed by the estate of a man that died in custody.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis filed the opinion on January 31. It overturned a district court ruling made by Judge P.K. Holmes III on December 2, 2021. According to court documents, Amos Reece was arrested in Gravette on February 25, 2018, transported to the Benton County jail and died that morning.
The lawsuit was filed by his mother, Donna M. Reece, as a representative of Reece’s estate on March 7, 2018, and named multiple defendants, including Sheriff Shawn Holloway and assorted jail staff. The suit stated that all defendants violated Reece’s Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Reece was arrested for allegations of public intoxication, drinking in public and breaking and entering, according to court documents, after reportedly attempting to break into vehicles in a hospital parking lot.
The arresting officer was aware at the time of the arrest that Reece had admitted to engaging in methamphetamine usage that day. While being transported to jail, Reece repeatedly told an officer that he was thirsty and that officer later reported that Reece exhibited “seizure behavior” in the back seat of the police car.
“A layperson would know that a person who had admitted to recent methamphetamine usage, complaining of severe thirst and engaged in a seizure would need immediate medical treatment,” the original complaint stated. It continued by calling the decision to refuse immediate treatment “deliberate indifference to the obvious serious medical needs of Amos Reece.”
The suit noted that jailing Reece in his condition was a violation of written Benton County jail policies and procedures. A jail booking sergeant was told that Reece was experiencing symptoms of “detoxing and/or other withdrawals,” according to the lawsuit.
Reece was placed in a restraint chair for approximately 90 minutes, then placed in a “detox cell” where he was “still profusely sweating and seemed ‘unwell.'” A nurse that examined him reported that Reece had elevated blood pressure and pulse.
Emergency Media Services were eventually called and administered medication to Reece. Court documents say that he had already coded before being loaded onto a gurney. He was taken to Northwest Medical Center and declared dead at 10:27 a.m. that morning.
The lower court ruled against qualified immunity for the defendants on the grounds that Reece’s seizure-like activity was a serious medical need that was deliberately ignored. The appeals court opinion overturned that ruling.
“We respectfully disagree with the district court,” the appeals court opinion stated. “A reasonable jury could not conclude from this description of events that [defendants were] aware of a serious medical need.”
The filing also cited relevant case law that has found that prison officials lacking medical expertise are entitled to rely on the opinions of medical staff regarding the diagnoses of inmates.
“We do not believe that the defendants were in a position to question the sufficiency of the nurse’s assessment or demand that she obtain more information from Amos so that she could assess him better,” the opinion said. “In the circumstances, the defendants can’t be faulted for presuming that the medical staff best knows the quantity and quality of information needed for assessments.”
The opinion concluded by noting that Reece had no external injuries and was not “struggling to breathe, bleeding, vomiting, or choking.”