Judge: No sovereign immunity for Pa. troopers accused of pepper spraying, urinating on arrestee
A Pennsylvania woman can move forward with her claim against five state police troopers who allegedly sprayed her with pepper spray and urine after she was already handcuffed and subdued, after a federal judge in western Pennsylvania ruled the officers cannot be covered by sovereign immunity for acts done outside the scope of their employment.
Chief U.S. District Judge Gary L. Lancaster of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania denied without prejudice Jan. 3 a motion to dismiss filed by the defendants in the case. The defendants claimed that they were covered under sovereign immunity.
The civil action was filed by Derena Marie Madison, a woman who claimed that the state troopers named as defendants in the lawsuit violated her Fourth Amendment rights after they doused her with cold water and sprayed her with pepper spray and bodily fluids after she was in custody and in restraints.
Madison had been arrested Feb. 3, 2011, at about 2:30 in the morning after the defendant troopers pulled over a vehicle in which Madison was riding on the suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol.
The vehicle’s driver was arrested for the infraction, and Madison, who was a passenger, was subsequently arrested for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct after she protested to the officers’ threats to have the vehicle towed from the scene, according to background information contained in the judge’s ruling.
Madison claims, however, that after she was handcuffed and taken back to the police station for processing, she was twice, “without justification,” sprayed with pepper spray for the “purpose of torturing her.”
After calling for help, Madison claims she was carried outside of the state police barracks, where she was doused with large quantities of cold water.
Madison allegedly passed out after the cold-water incident, and when she reawakened, discovered herself lying in the snow and covered with what appeared to be urine. She was still handcuffed and leg manacled during this period.
Madison was released from police custody later that day. She was never offered medical assistance or the opportunity to decontaminate from the pepper spray, the court papers state.
Madison subsequently filed suit, claiming constitutional rights violations in addition to allegations of intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault and battery.
The defendants responded by claiming sovereign immunity with respect to the intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault and battery claims, asserting that as state police officers, they were acting in the course of their duty when they subdued Madison and subsequently arrested her.
The troopers claimed that subduing persons is an act afforded to law enforcement officers, and something police officers have to do in order to carry out their job duties.
Madison had responded by saying that she was allegedly pepper sprayed and urinated on after she was already restrained.
The judge ended up siding with Madison.
“When a suspect is in custody and fully restrained, the acts alleged here do not serve any purpose of the police or constitute the kind of conduct police are employed to perform,” the judge wrote. “Certainly, troopers serve no legitimate law enforcement purpose by urinating on a person in custody. Plaintiff’s allegations of assault outside the police barracks suggest personal motivation, rather than intent to serve the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Therefore, defendants are not entitled to sovereign immunity based on the pleadings.”