By Andrew Chung
(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday revived a civil rights lawsuit filed by a convicted murderer in Texas against a prison guard accused of using pepper spray against him in an unprovoked attack in violation of the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The justices threw out a lower court's ruling that had protected corrections officer Tajudeen Alamu from inmate Prince McCoy's lawsuit under a legal defense called qualified immunity that shields government officials from civil litigation in certain circumstances.
McCoy's lawyers said he has asthma and experienced physical and emotional effects from the 2016 incident at the Darrington prison in Rosharon, Texas.
The justices, in a brief order, directed the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider the case in light of their ruling last November in another case also involving a claim arising from the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment bar on cruel and unusual punishment. In that ruling, the justices let another Texas inmate pursue his claim that prison officials violated the Eighth Amendment by locking him up in cells with extremely filthy conditions.
In the McCoy incident, a different inmate threw water on Alamu. McCoy, who was locked in a segregation cell isolated from the general prison population, accused Alamu of then spraying him in the face with pepper spray for "no reason at all" because the guard was angry with the other prisoner.
McCoy said he experienced burning skin and eyes and had difficulty breathing as well as emotional distress from the assault. He filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2017.
McCoy is serving a sentence of life in prison for murder and has since been transferred to a different facility, according to state records.
The 5th Circuit in 2020 ruled that prison guards cannot use pepper spray solely as a means of punishment or to inflict pain and found that "McCoy's version of the disputed facts demonstrates a constitutional violation." The 5th Circuit, however, ruled that Alamu was shielded by qualified immunity because his actions were not "clearly established" as unlawful at the time.
Reuters in May 2020 published an investigation that revealed how qualified immunity, with the Supreme Court's continual refinements, has made it easier for police officers to kill or injure civilians with impunity. [See https://www.reuters.com/investigates/section/usa-police-immunity]
In an analysis of hundreds of appeals in excessive force cases between 2005 and 2019, Reuters found an increasing tendency in the courts to grant qualified immunity.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)