Legal Reporter

Article excerpt

Judicial Decisions

Immunity. According to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, prison guards employed by a private company are not qualified to receive immunity from prisoners' lawsuits. Because they are not employees of the state, private guards are not immune when prisoners sue for a violation of constitutional rights.

In 1994, Ronnie Lee McKnight, an inmate at the South Central Correctional Facility in Tennessee, filed a lawsuit claiming that two corrections officers, Daryll Richardson and John Walker, violated his constitutional rights to protection from cruel and unusual punishment. McKnight stated in court documents that the two officers, who were employed by Corrections Corporation of America, which manages the prison, tied his restraints too tightly during a prison transfer. The restraints, claimed McKnight, caused injuries serious enough to require hospitalization.

Richardson and Walker requested that the complaint be dismissed because, as correctional officers, they were entitled to immunity. The district court refused the request, ruling that the officers were not public employees but employees of a private, for-profit company and were not, therefore, entitled to qualified immunity. Richardson and Walker appealed.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's decision. In ruling on the case, the court noted that while state-employed corrections officers do have qualified immunity, there is no legal precedent granting privately employed officers the same rights. The guards again appealed the decision.

In a five to four vote, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the appellate decision finding that the private prison guards do not enjoy the same immunity granted to state employees. According to the Court, immunity does not apply to private prison guards because "mere performance of a governmental function does not support immunity for a private person, especially one who performs a job without government supervision or direction."

The Court also noted that market pressures will help keep prison officials from being overly timid or too aggressive. Either of these conditions, wrote the Court, will result in the private company being replaced by another.

According to the guards' attorney, Chip Frensley of Nashville, Tennessee, the decision should not affect the number of cases filed or won by inmates. What will be affected is the number of cases that go to trial. Frensley notes that qualified immunity does not prevent inmates from pursuing legitimate claims, but it does allow a frivolous case to be dismissed early in the legal process. (McKnight v. Daryll Richardson and John Walker, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 96-318, 1997)

Telecommunications. The Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, which made indecent electronic transmissions illegal, was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court because it violates First Amendment rights to free speech.

The law, passed as part of a telecommunications reform bill, would have held online service providers, network operators, and private business owners liable for indecent transmissions sent over their computer networks.

The lawsuit was filed against the government by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and twenty-seven individuals and organizations. The ACLU charged that the law was unconstitutional because it criminalized protected speech. For example, some literary and political documents available in libraries would be illegal under the law if transmitted electronically. Attorneys for the government argued that the law was necessary to protect minors from inappropriate material available via computer.

The government had requested that the Court preserve the CDA by cutting the offensive terms and allowing the law to stand. The Court refused to exercise this option, noting in the written opinion of the case that the law was too broad and too pervasive.

Sex discrimination. …