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7th Circuit rejects government’s position of inmate self-defense

August 31, 2016

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals declined to hold, as the district court did, that an inmate can only use force in self-defense against a correctional officer if the inmate faces death or serious bodily harm.

Joshua A. Waldman, a federal inmate, was convicted of forcibly assaulting correctional officer Jason Buescher as Buescher and two other officers attempted to conduct a random pat-down of Waldman. Waldman and Busecher’s version of events differ, but it is undisputed that Waldman head-butted the officer during an argument over the search. Waldman advanced a self-defense argument at trial, but the federal judge held that there needed to be an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm before he could justifiably use force in self-defense.

He appealed, claiming the lower court legally erred when it conditioned a prisoner’s right to self-defense on the imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury. He also maintained that the district court erred in finding Buescher didn’t expose him to an imminent threat of harm and that Waldman had a reasonable legal alternative to head-butting the officer.

The 7th Circuit agreed with Waldman on the self-defense standard, finding the test to determine a violation of the Eighth Amendment is useful in determining whether a prisoner is justified in using self-defense.

“The government argues that if self-defense is not contingent upon fearing serious bodily injury or death, inmates will be allowed to use force against guards at any time they believe the officer might be using slightly more force than necessary against them. But such a danger is overblown,” Judge Ann Claire Williams wrote. “Prisoners will still need to prove their fear was reasonable, meaning that there was an objective reason to believe that officers intended to cause sadistic and malicious harm. That is not an easy burden.”

Imposing the government’s requirements would mean that inmates could be subjected to abuse and not be able to defend themselves because there is not an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm.

But the judges affirmed Waldman’s conviction, finding no error in the ruling that Waldman had reasonable legal alternatives to using force. He could have submitted to Buescher’s search instead of escalating the situation into a fight, Williams pointed out. The district court was entitled to credit the officer’s version of the facts, that Waldman was the first aggressor and used force before Buescher touched him.

The case is United States of America v. Joshua A. Waldman, 15-1756.

 

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