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Sixth Circuit overturns dismissal of excessive force case brought by drunk who suffered facial fractures at the hands of his jailers

In Burgess, et al. v. Fischer, et al., the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed the appeal of a drunk driver who had sued his jailers for using excessive force.  His claimed violation of the 4th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution had been dismissed in the lower court.  The appellate court reversed, holding that a pre-trial detainee's right to be free from excessive force was clearly established prior to this incident, and that the man was entitled to a jury trial given the disputed facts.

Burgess was arrested for drunk driving and was apparently an obnoxious drunk.  He resisted arrest, according to the officers, who had to "take him down" in order to cuff him.  They "warned" jail authorities by raido that they were bringing in a belligerent arrestee who was yelling obscenities.   When he was patted down, Burgess apparently asked the attending officer "while you are down there, you want to give me a blow job?"  In response to this remark, an officer ordered another "take down," during which he suffered "displaced left posterior lateral and inferior orbital wall fractures" and "moderate mucosal thickening of the left maxillary sinus from a displaced left anterior medial and posterolateral maxilla wall fractures."  His jaw and skull fractures required surgery and he also suffered a broken tooth (although the jail authorities only provided him with Tylenol prior to release, finding "no injuries that warranted treatment").

Burgess felt that jail authorities lacked a sense of humor and should not have fractured his skull and jaw and tooth for making a tasteless joke while exhibiting belligerent drunken behavior.  He filed his claim of constitutional injury in the federal court system.  The jail authorities and Burgess disputed the extent of his physical resistance, although they agreed that the catalyst for his injury-causing "take down" was the "blow job" remark.  Unfortunately for the cause of justice, the video tape of the incident was destroyed by the jail pursuant to a five-day docuemnt retention policy (i.e., "we routinely destroy anything that might be used against us before it can be subpoenaed by hospitalized victims...").

The trial judge granted the Defendants' motion for summary disposition and Burgess appealed.  The Appellate Court pointed to the severity of Burgess' injuries and his claim that he was physically compliant (though obnoxious), and sent the case back for a trial on the merits.  He is entitled to a trial on the merits, where a jury of the litigants' peers will decide who to believe and whether the police were justified in inflicting the injuries Burgess suffered.

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