Qualified Immunity for Officers Who Recognized Excited Delirium as a Medical Emergency

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Hanson v. Best, 2019 (8th Cir. 2019)

Andrew Layton was sleeping in the foyer of a grocery store. An officer sent to check on him tapped on Layton’s shoulder to wake him. Layton responded suddenly and violently, making loud groaning and growling noises, so the officer tried to pin Layton to the ground on his stomach. The officer called for backup and bystanders helped the officer hold Layton down while Layton continued to yell incoherently, thrash his arms, kick his legs, and twist away.

Three more officers arrived and struggled violently to hold Layton down and keep him from pushing up off the ground. A fifth officer arrived and deployed a TASER® device in touch mode, allowing the officers to secure Layton’s hands with two sets of handcuffs. Layton continued to thrash and kick, injuring two of the officers. When Layton started spitting on the officers, they applied a spit mask. A commander arrived and directed that Layton be transported by ambulance rather than in a police car.

When paramedics arrived, one of the officers realized they had dealt with Layton in similar circumstances in the past. The officer stated Layton was probably intoxicated on methamphetamine. The paramedics assessed Layton’s condition and concluded he did not require emergency medical treatment and could be safely transported to jail. Two officers rode in the back of the ambulance with Layton, who continued to struggle.

Once in the jail sallyport, Layton stopped struggling. The paramedics realized he was in cardiac arrest, initiated CPR, and applied a defibrillator. Although the paramedics successfully restored a cardiac rhythm and took Layton to a hospital, he never regained consciousness.

The court granted qualified immunity to the officers on the issue of prone restraint, stating the court had never “deemed prone restraint unconstitutional in and of itself the few times we have addressed the issue.”

Layton’s mother sued, alleging the officers used excessive force to control Layton and were deliberately indifferent to his medical needs. She claimed the officers held Layton, while restrained, in a prone position for an excessive length of time, causing his death. The court granted qualified immunity to the officers on the issue of prone restraint, stating the court had never “deemed prone restraint unconstitutional in and of itself the few times we have addressed the issue.”

The court also applied qualified immunity to the claim the officers were deliberately indifferent to Layton’s medical needs. The plaintiff asserted “Layton was clearly suffering from excited delirium syndrome such that transporting him directly to jail was inappropriate.” To show officers are “deliberately indifferent,” the plaintiff must show first, there was “objectively serious medical need,” and second, the officer had “had actual knowledge of those needs but deliberately disregarded them.” The fact that officers had summoned paramedics and relied on their professional evaluation supported the grant of qualified immunity. “Because medical professionals never suggested Layton had emergency medical needs, the urgent nature of Layton’s condition could not have been ‘obvious’ to a layperson,” such as the police officers.

The officers were entitled to qualified immunity on all claims and to dismissal of the lawsuit. Two lessons stand out: First, the officers recognized excited delirium is foremost a medical emergency. Second, the officers promptly called for paramedics and relied on their professional training and experience to determine how to best deal with Layton. Whether or not the officers categorized the situation as an excited delirium agitated chaotic event, they knew to immediately request medical professionals. This made the difference in the lawsuit.

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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