Judge lets Marion County inmate suicide suit proceed

A lawsuit claiming the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and one of its deputies violated an inmate’s constitutional rights by leaving him unattended long enough for the inmate to kill himself will continue after a district court judge declined to fully grant summary judgment to the county.

G. John Cento, acting as personal representative of the Estate of Thomas Shane Miles, sued Marion County, the sheriff’s office and Patrick Belanger in 2017 after Thomas Shane Miles, an inmate, died by suicide while in a holding cell at the Indianapolis City-County Building. Miles had attempted suicide before his arrest in August 2016 and made additional attempts after he was arrested by throwing himself down a set of stairs and ingesting the contents of a chemical ice pack.

Miles was eventually moved to “suicide segregation” and was given a “suicide smock,” which is designed to prevent inmates from using their clothing to hang themselves. However, before a court hearing on Aug. 30, 2016, Miles was changed into standard-issued jail clothing pursuant to the jail’s standard practices.

When Miles was transported to the City-County Building for his hearing that morning, Deputy Patrick Belanger was informed that he was on suicide watch. As the deputy on duty to monitor the holding cells that day, Belanger was required to make the rounds every 15 minutes and record observations about Miles on a suicide observation sheet.

Miles was returned to his holding cell after the hearing and was eventually the only inmate remaining. Belanger did not have a suicide observation sheet, so he left his post to retrieve a sheet and use the restroom. When the deputy returned 30 to 45 minutes later, he found Miles hanging in the cell. He had ripped a small section from his jail-issued shirt to form a noose.

The allegations at issue in Indiana Southern District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt’s Wednesday order on the summary judgment motions were state law wrongful death claims against the county and jail and 14th Amendment due process claims against the county, jail and Belanger. Pratt granted summary judgment as to the state law claims, finding law enforcement immunity applied, but she declined to grant summary judgment on the federal claims.

Specifically, Miles’ estate alleged the defendants violated Miles’ due process rights by failing to take steps to prevent his suicide. Pratt found a genuine issue of material fact on that claim, noting first a question about whether Belanger knew Miles was suicidal before the court hearing.

“…Belanger testified during his deposition that (Deputy Sean Gray) did not tell him that Miles was suicidal until after the court hearing,” Pratt wrote. “If Belanger knew before the court hearing that Miles was suicidal and that he did not have a suicide observation sheet, a reasonable juror might conclude that Belanger was deliberately indifferent to Miles’ risk of suicide by not obtaining the sheet during Miles’ hearing and instead waiting until Miles was alone in the holding cell to leave his post to find the sheet.”

The judge also said there was conflicting evidence as to whether Miles had been left alone for an extended period of time. Further, she said a “reasonable juror could conclude that choosing to not implement the jail’s policies and procedures at the CCB was deliberately indifferent to a detainee’s risk of suicide,” referencing the fact that Miles was no longer under constant monitoring and was wearing standard-issue clothes at the time of his death.

“Because the Court has determined that factual disputes exist regarding whether there was deliberate indifference to a substantial suicide risk (which would be a constitutional violation), summary judgment is not appropriate on the basis of qualified immunity,” Pratt wrote.

The case is G. John Cento as the Personal Representative of the Estate of Thomas Shane Miles v. Marion County Sheriff’s Office, et al., 1:17-cv-00431.

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