Police liability remains in force in suicide case Supreme Court declines to upset verdict here.

March 04, 1991|By Kelly Gilbert | Kelly Gilbert,Evening Sun Staff

The U.S. Supreme Court today refused to hear arguments in a dispute over the duties of police officers and police departments to prevent prisoners from committing suicide in custody.

The court, without comment, left intact a U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last year that two Baltimore County police officers, Donald Gaigalas and Ronald Tucker, violated the civil rights of James E. Buffington, 24, of Catonsville, who hanged himself in the Wilkens police lockup March 19, 1987.

William F. Gately, who represented the Buffington family, said he was "disappointed" that the Supreme Court would not hear arguments to reimpose liability on the county Police Department and Police Chief Cornelius J. Behan. The 4th Circuit had struck those parties from the verdict of a lower court.

"On balance," Gately said, "we view the case as a tremendous victory. The duty of police to protect suicidal detainees is the constitutional standard now. It's clear to us that the county police, as a direct result of this case, have transformed the way they handle all detainees."

"This really is a significant victory," said Daniel W. Whitney, Gately's co-counsel.

The case, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore by the victim's parents, stemmed from Buffington's suicide in an isolated cell after he was arrested at the request of his brother.

James Buffington had left home with several rifles and pistols. He had a history of emotional and alcohol problems, and had left a suicide note, his brother told police.

The arresting officers handcuffed Buffington to a railing near the booking desk while they sought to arrange emergency hospitalization for him, after he said he had intended to shoot himself but did not know which gun to use.

Later, after a shift change, one of the desk officers put Buffington alone in a detention cell, out of sight. Within an hour, Buffington hanged himself with his pants.

A trial jury awarded his parents, David and Barbara Buffington, $185,000 in compensatory damages, and Judge Joseph C. Howard added $430,000 in legal fees and costs.

The police had an obligation "to provide some measure of care" knowing Buffington was suicidal, but "acted with deliberate indifference" and failed to take "the minimal preventive step" of handcuffing Buffington to the rail, the appeals court said.

It also ordered Howard to recalculate the lawyers' fees and costs due the Buffingtons.

But the 4th Circuit panel reversed the verdicts against Behan and the department, saying, "There was no evidence that [the county's] failure to train its officers in suicide prevention . . . caused Buffington's suicide."

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