Oklahoma Supreme Court Affirms State Constitutional Rights

In a 7-2 opinion issued this week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court affirmed that citizens have a state constitutional right against the use of excessive force inside jail facilities throughout the state.

Prior to this week’s ruling, counties and public trust authorities that operate county jails had taken the position that no such right existed, and that entities were absolutely immune for anything that occurred within the four walls of a jail facility. The Supreme Court ruling firmly rejected that proposition and further concluded that counties and trust authorities could be held responsible for excessive force committed by employees acting within the scope of employment.

The opinion resulted from an excessive force suit filed by Daniel Bosh against the Cherokee County Governmental Building Authority (“CCGBA”). Bosh has alleged that employees of the CCGBA used excessive force against him in the booking area of the facility, slammed his head against a booking desk and then placed him in a headlock and dropped the crown of his head against the booking room floor. The acts described in the lawsuit were captured on video taken by the facility security system.

In opposing Bosh’s claim, the CCGBA argued that even if its employees committed acts of excessive force, it enjoyed absolute immunity under state law and could not be held responsible for the acts of its employees. The Supreme Court flatly rejected the proposition:

[T]he assault was committed not by a police officer, but by an employee of a detention center, and the OGCTA expressly immunizes the state and political subdivisions such as counties and municipalities from liability arising out of the operation of prison facilities.  This does not mean that injured tort victims are at the mercy of their captors to be beaten, assaulted, and left without medical attention without any remedy to deter such conduct . . . The OGTCA cannot be construed as immunizing the state completely from all liability for violations of the constitutional rights of its citizens. To do so would not only fail to conform to established precedent which refused to construe the OGTCA as providing blanket immunity, but would also render the Constitutional protections afforded the citizens of this State as ineffective, and a nullity.

In affirming the state constitutional right against excessive force, the Supreme Court further concluded that adherence to state constitutional rights is best served by retrospective application of the right, and holding counties responsible for the actions of their employees.

In other words, entity liability will encourage supervisory officials to critically examine hiring and training decisions and foster a more professional environment.

The full opinion is available here:  Bosh v. Cherokee County Building Authority, 2013 OK 9

**Disclaimer – Bryan & Terrill Law, PLLC represents the plaintiff in this matter