Cruel and Unusual Punishment from Secondhand Smoke?

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Washington v. Denney, 2018 WL 3827437 (8th Cir. 2018)

Ecclesiastical Denzel Washington (not Denzel Washington the actor) is a guest of the Missouri state prison system. Washington was diagnosed with asthma and bronchitis. After filing several grievances about secondhand smoke, he sued prison officials for cruel and unusual punishment from secondhand smoke, alleging the defendants were deliberately indifferent to the secondhand smoke’s impact on his health.

Washington was confined in the Crossroads prison, where over 85 percent of prisoners smoke. The prison allows inmates to keep cigarettes, tobacco, rolling papers, rolling machines, and lighters in their cells. Though smoking in cells is prohibited, corrections officers admitted they “can smell smoke all the time” in the cells.

The evidence showed the prison officials knew about Washington’s medical condition, but they allowed his cellmates to violate the smoking ban in their cells. After a trial, the jury decided that prison officials violated Washington’s right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment from secondhand smoke. The jury awarded Washington $40,000 in compensatory damages and $71,000 in punitive damages against prison officials.

The court of appeals agreed Washington’s rights were violated and that prison officials were deliberately indifferent to his medical needs. Nonetheless, punitive damages against prison officials are appropriate only when their conduct is malicious, outrageous, or intentional. The court held there was no “evil motive or intent,” and reversed the award of punitive damages.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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