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Cook County Sheriff Gets Qualified Immunity in Jailbreak Appeal

By Robyn Hagan Cain on April 01, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If you're the guard on duty during a prison break, you should probably assume that you will be investigated.

The Seventh Circuit ruled this week that such investigations are objectively reasonable.

In 2006, there was a major escape from Cook County Jail's Abnormal Behavior Observation Unit (ABO), which raised concerns about inside assistance. An internal affairs investigation followed.

Darin Gater, a correctional officer, confessed to allowing six inmates to escape, and suggested that fellow officers Marvin Bailey and RIchard Davis had reputations as "officers that inmates could 'work with.'"

Gater was convicted and sentenced for his role in the jailbreak. Bailey and Davis, along with correctional officers Ivan Hernandez, Roberto Rodriguez, Bill Jones, and Gene Michno were reassigned.

The reassigned officers sued the Sheriff's Office and investigators, claiming psychological and emotional injuries from the investigation. They claim that the investigation was First Amendment retaliation for their political support of Richard Remus, a former director of their former task team and a Cook County Sheriff candidate at the time the jailbreak occurred.

The district court and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals can't seem to agree about whether the Sheriff's Office and investigators are entitled to qualified immunity. The district court thinks there are genuine issues of material fact relating to the political retaliation claims, the veracity of Gater's confession and the fact that no other officers were investigated for the jailbreak. The Seventh Circuit disagrees.

Qualified immunity turns on whether the facts, taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, make out a violation of constitutional law and whether a constitutional right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. Here, the appellate court started with the second question, asking whether the Sheriff's Office had probable cause to investigate the later-reassigned officers. It concluded that there were legitimate reasons for the investigation because multi-prisoner jailbreaks tend to raise a few eyebrows.

After concluding that the authorities had probable cause to investigate the officers, the Seventh Circuit noted that it was less concerned about other possible motivations for the officers' treatment because it is objectively reasonable to investigate officers implicated in a multi-felon jailbreak.

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