This month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court's denial of qualified immunity for several officers regarding the failure to render medical care (Thomas v. City of Harrisburg, No. 21-2963, 3d Cir. 2023). The court case resulted from the in-custody death of Terelle Thomas after he had ingested cocaine in an attempt to conceal the drugs from officers during a traffic stop.
The initial incident occurred when Thomas was in a vehicle that had been stopped by police. Officers reported that Thomas had the appearance of pasty white lips and looked like he was concealing something in his mouth. While Thomas denied ingesting anything, officers shared a belief that he had, reporting they observed a white powdery substance on his face.
Following his arrest, Thomas was transferred to the County prison, where medical staff examined him but did not send him for further medical treatment. A short time after his incarceration, Thomas fell over backward, striking his head, and was found in cardiac arrest. He was transferred to the local hospital but died; his death was ruled to be the result of "Cocaine and fentanyl toxicity."
While this case has been sent back down to the District Court, there are a few critical takeaways from the current stage.
Failure to Render Medical Care: The case primarily examined whether law enforcement officers breached Thomas's constitutional right to medical care. Legal statutes mandate that officers recognize and address detainees' serious medical needs. In this case, the plaintiff alleges that numerous officers' observations indicated an apparent risk due to Thomas's suspected ingestion of cocaine. However, the failure to seek medical
assistance on his behalf could be ruled a violation of his Constitutional Rights.
Clearly Established Right: As we know, qualified immunity applies unless the violated right was explicitly established at the time. The court stressed law enforcement’s obligation to provide medical care as being currently established. Consequently, the court denied qualified immunity.
Failure to Intervene: The case raised questions about the recognized right to intervene in medical contexts. While acknowledging a duty to intervene in specific situations (such as excessive force or sexual assault), the court concluded no explicitly established right to intervene in cases involving medical care existed. Therefore, the officers were granted qualified immunity for the failure to intervene.
Key Takeaway: Thomas v. City of Harrisburg serves as a reminder of law enforcement's responsibility to recognize and address the serious medical needs of individuals in their custody. This case underscores the importance of immediately seeking medical attention for suspects, especially when we are aware of potential health risks
 Thomas v. Harrisburg City Police Dep't, No. 1:20-cv-01178 (M.D. Pa. Feb. 23, 2021)