On November 2, 2020 the Supreme Court decided Taylor v. Riojas, holding that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit erred in granting qualified immunity to correctional officers sued by inmate Trent Taylor regarding the conditions of his confinement in a Texas prison.
Taylor alleged that the officers knowingly confined him for six days in cells so grossly unsanitary as to violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. He contends that the cells were covered in human waste, that he was forced to sleep naked in raw sewage, and that the high risk of contamination prevented him from eating or drinking for nearly four days. The Fifth Circuit rejected Taylor’s challenge, reasoning that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity from suit because it was not “clearly established” by court doctrine that the specific conditions of Taylor’s confinement would have violated the Eighth Amendment.
The Supreme Court vacated the Fifth Circuit’s judgment and remanded the case. “No reasonable correctional officer,” the Court indicated, “could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time.”
Although the Court’s opinion was issued per curiam, it was noted that Justice Thomas dissented and Justice Barrett took no part in the consideration or decision of the case. Justice Alito issued an opinion concurring in the judgment.
Katherine Mims Crocker, Assistant Professor of Law at William and Mary Law School, joins us to discuss this decision and its implications.