In Coscia v. Town of Pembroke, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts opened the door for liability for suicide by a police detainee outside of police custody. On December 9, 2007, Jason Coscia was involved in a single-car accident. Police subsequently arrested Coscia and transported him to the police station. During the ride, Coscia told police he wanted to kill himself and intended to do so by jumping in front of a train. Once in his cell, Coscia repeated his plans to end his life by any means possible. He then attempted to bite off his handcuffs, to kick the walls, and to lick an electrical outlet. Police officers placed leg restraints on Coscia and completed a suicide evaluation form, concluding he had a “very high risk” of committing suicide. The police chief allegedly became aware of the situation and of Coscia’s statements, but took no action. At 6:00 p.m., police released Coscia without ever requesting or obtaining medical assistance for him. Fourteen hours later, at 7:50 a.m. the next day, Coscia stepped in front of a train and ended his life.
Coscia’s estate brought a civil rights action against the officers and police chief claiming deliberate indifference to the decedent’s medical needs while he was in police custody in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The estate also brought a Section 1983 claim against the Town for failing to train its officers in suicide prevention. The defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that Coscia had no constitutional right to protection from harm while outside of police custody, individual officers were entitled to qualified immunity, and no Monell claim for municipal liability was available against the Town.
Noting that police officers are typically found not liable when a former detainee commits suicide subsequent to his release from custody, Judge Nancy Gertner explained that such liability may nonetheless be found upon a showing that police exhibited deliberate indifference in the face of an unusually strong risk of suicide. A municipality may also be subject to liability when a government policy or custom causes the constitutional violation. In short, if a failure to train rises to the level of deliberate indifference, such failure may be considered a policy or custom for purposes of establishing Monell liability. The Pembroke Police Department had a policy regarding suicide prevention, but it was too soon, at the outset of the litigation, to determine whether the Department effectively trained its officers in this aspect of their police work.
Coscia’s statements and actions in the cell could be found to constitute a serious risk, and the police officers’ actions in completing the suicide evaluation form constituted actual knowledge of that risk. With respect to the officers’ failure to act, the Court noted that the Department had a policy whereby detainees with suicidal tendencies were to be taken to the hospital for evaluation. The officers’ failure to comply with that policy, at the least, stated facts sufficient to withstand the defendants’ dispositive motion. The Court also ruled that the estate had demonstrated plausible facts to support its argument that the defendants’ actions caused Coscia’s death; but for the officers’ alleged failure to obtain medical assistance for Coscia, he might not have committed suicide. Lastly, the Court concluded the defendants were on notice that their failure to act could have violated Coscia’s constitutional rights in light of the extensive case law regarding medical care for suicidal detainees and the Departmental policy regarding the evaluation and treatment of suicidal detainees. Therefore, the individual defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity.
The Court’s denial of defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings invites the possibility that deliberate indifference to a detainee’s serious risk of suicide can be the proximate cause of self-inflicted harm long after a release from custody. Indeed, the Court seems to draw a line in the sand to eliminate “perverse incentives for [police officials] to intentionally release suicidal individuals to escape liability.” The specter of liability for actions (or inactions) so remote from the ultimate act of the detainee should inspire municipalities and police departments to implement appropriate policies to process suicidal detainees, to provide adequate training to police officers, and, most importantly, to carry out those policies in order to avoid future liability.
Published in Developments in Municipal Law Fall 2010 Newsletter.