ACLU Brief Argues Government Doctors Should Be Accountable For Unconstitutional Care

January 22, 2010 8:40 pm

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Filing Supports Family Of Immigration Detainee Who Died Of Cancer That Went Untreated

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the estate of an immigration detainee who died after he developed penile cancer that went untreated while he was in government custody should be allowed to sue the individual Public Health Service officials charged with his care for violating his constitutional rights.

The amicus brief was filed in support of the family of Francisco Castaneda, a Salvadoran who died in February 2008 at age 36 after he was denied a biopsy for a lesion that developed on his penis while he was detained at an immigration detention center in San Diego, CA. A government physician charged with Castaneda’s care has 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 death of Francisco Castaneda was the result of a denial of medical care so shocking that a federal judge said it, if proven at trial, should be held up to law students as conduct for which the word ‘cruel’ is an understatement,” said Gabriel Eber, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. “Both the conduct alleged – and the government’s written policy of denying detainees necessary medical treatment – are patently unconstitutional and, therefore, are in need of a constitutional remedy.”

The medical personnel who were responsible for providing proper medical care to Castaneda were officers of the U.S. Public Health Service assigned through Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) 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 is claiming 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.

The ACLU brief, filed with cooperating counsel at the Chicago office of Mayer Brown LLP, argues that holding individual Public Health Service officials accountable for their unconstitutional misconduct is a vital way to provide the deterrence and incentive for greater oversight and reform that are necessary to help prevent future tragedies like the pain, suffering and death of Castaneda.

The brief also argues 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 ability to generate pressure from within DIHS to reform policies that unconstitutionally restrict detainee medical care would be severely inhibited.

“ICE needs to turn the page on its current policies and develop a comprehensive program for meeting the medical needs for those held in its custody,” said Eber.

Additional information about the ACLU National Prison Project is available online at:

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