Supreme Court Rules Government Doctors Not Individually Liable For Death Of Immigration Detainee
(Updated May 4, 2010)
Ruling Removes Important Means Of Upholding Constitutional Rights Of Detainees Subjected To Mistreatment, Says ACLU
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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that individual Public Health Service officials cannot be held personally liable for failing to properly care for an immigration detainee who died after developing penile cancer that went untreated while he was in government custody. The American Civil Liberties Union argued in a friend-of-the-court brief that the estate of Francisco Castaneda, a Salvadoran who died in February 2008 at the age of 36 after he was denied a biopsy for a lesion that developed on his penis while he was detained at an immigration detention facility in San Diego, CA, should be able to sue the health officials charged with his care for violating his constitutional rights.
"Today's ruling is a disappointment and yet another missed opportunity to bring about the meaningful reforms that our nation's immigration detention system desperately needs," said Gabriel Eber, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. "With today's decision, the Supreme Court has unfortunately closed the door on an important avenue of accountability for the gross mistreatment that immigration detainees across the country have suffered."
The medical personnel who were responsible for providing proper medical care to Castaneda were officers of the U.S. Public Health Service assigned through the Division of Immigration Health Services (DIHS). While the federal government admitted in April 2008 that its negligence was responsible for Castaneda's death, the government claimed that, under federal law, individual Public Health Service officials are immunized against lawsuits alleging that they failed to provide medical care that meets constitutional minimums. A government physician charged with Castaneda's care said in sworn testimony that she knew a biopsy was the only way to determine whether Castaneda had cancer. She failed, however, to arrange for him to have this critical test.
The ACLU argued in its brief that holding individual Public Health Service officials accountable for their unconstitutional misconduct is a vital way to incentive for greater oversight and reform, as well as deterrence, that are necessary to help prevent future tragedies like the pain, suffering and death of Castaneda.
The ACLU's brief also argued that without the ability to hold individual Public Health Service officials accountable for constitutional violations, victims and their families have no way of meaningfully addressing the cruel conduct inflicted upon them. Additionally, the lack of liability severely inhibits the ability to generate pressure from within DIHS to reform policies that unconstitutionally restrict detainee medical care.
Documents obtained by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in 2008 exposed the deaths of several detainees in detention that the government had never previously accounted for, a pattern of grossly inadequate medical care provided to detainees in detention and an intentional campaign of obfuscation by government officials to hide mistreatment of detainees.
"Today's ruling heightens the urgency for Congress to take immediate action to reform the immigration detention system," said Joanne Lin, ACLU Legislative Counsel. "Because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has proven that it cannot be trusted to police itself on immigration detention, it is crucial that meaningful immigration detention reforms be a part of any comprehensive immigration reform legislation and that Congress exercise strong, meaningful oversight of ICE."
Among the specific reforms being advocated by the ACLU are independent oversight of ICE to ensure transparency, the enactment of legally binding and enforceable detention standards, the ability of independent observers to visit and monitor all immigration detention facilities and to require ICE to provide critical medical treatment – including heart surgeries and biopsies – regardless of whether the agency arbitrarily deems the care to be "non-emergency." The ACLU is also urging Congress to swiftly pass the Strong STANDARDS Act (Safe Treatment, Avoiding Needless Deaths, and Abuse Reduction in the Detention System).
Additionally, ICE needs to divorce itself from its over-reliance on immigration detention in the first place. ICE detains approximately 30,000 people every day* in county jails and other immigration detention facilities, including people fleeing persecution by other governments, longtime permanent residents with U.S. citizen children and people with no criminal records. Many ICE detainees don't warrant being detained and are denied access to the kind of individualized determinations that are the essence of due process and the Constitution.
A copy of the ACLU's brief in the case, Hui v. Castaneda, is available online at: www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/hui-v-castaneda-aclu-amicus-brief
Additional information about the ACLU National Prison Project is available online at: www.aclu.org/prison
* This text was corrected. It originally read "ICE annually detains approximately 30,000 people..."