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Drunk Tank Suicide May Lead to Liability

Jack Ryan

Coleman v. Parkman, St. Francis County Sheriff, No. 03-1611 (8th Cir. 2003).

In November of 1999, Captain Leary of the St. Francis County Sheriff’s office began investigating Billy Coleman regarding his involvement in the commission of several misdemeanors. While interviewing witnesses, Leary was allegedly told that Coleman was “mental,” “a risk to himself and others,” and “would kill himself if jailed.”

When Leary located Coleman to arrest him, the person with Coleman told Leary that Coleman had been carrying a rifle and had threatened suicide.” Upon arriving at the jail, Captain Leary questioned Coleman for about thirty minutes. Coleman indicated that he had contemplated suicide the day before but had decided against it. Leary testified that following this interview, he concluded that Coleman was not a suicide risk. There was a disagreement in testimony between Leary and the jailer, who reported that Coleman was put on a suicide watch.

Coleman was placed in the drunk tank which had eighteen exposed bars. The jail had a holding cell which did not have exposed bars but a rowdy prisoner already occupied the holding cell. It was also noted that the drunk tank was more difficult to observe, due to its location, than the holding cell.

As a legal matter the court noted that government actors cannot act with deliberate indifference toward a detainee’s substantial risk of suicide. Thus, a person suing a law enforcement officer or agency must show: 1) The officers knew the detainee presented a substantial suicide risk and 2) The officer failed to respond reasonably to that risk. The court pointed out that it is not sufficient to show that the risk was obvious, rather a plaintiff must prove the risk was actually known.

In its examination of the facts here, the court was required to look at the fact in the light most favorable to Coleman. In doing so, the court concluded that a reasonable jury could conclude that Captain Leary knew that Coleman presented a substantial risk of suicide. The court noted the statements of witnesses that had been made to Leary as well as the interview with Coleman himself.

The court further concluded that the actions of the officers may not have been a reasonable response to a known suicide risk since Coleman was placed in a cell with exposed bars, which was difficult to monitor and was given a bed sheet, which he used to hang himself.

The case was sent to trial.

Risk Management and Suicide:

Agencies have an obligation to protect detainees

As this case points out, officers must respond reasonably to known suicide risks

Agencies should have a procedure in place, supported by policy and training that uncovers suicidal tendencies

All agencies that hold detainees, even for short term should train on suicide prevention

Agencies should have clear policy on monitoring and special precautions for suicidal prisoners

Agencies should evaluate their facilities for purposes of making cells more suicide-proof


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