For Immediate Release
Supreme Court Rules Government Doctors Not Individually Liable for Death of Immigration Detainee
Ruling Removes Important Means of Upholding Constitutional Rights of Detainees Subjected to Mistreatment, Says ACLU
individual Public Health Service officials cannot be held personally
liable for failing to properly care for an immigration detainee who died
after developing penile cancer that went untreated while he was in
government custody. The American Civil Liberties Union argued in a
friend-of-the-court brief that the estate of Francisco Castaneda, a
Salvadoran who died in February 2008 at the age of 36 after he was
denied a biopsy for a lesion that developed on his penis while he was
detained at an immigration detention facility in San Diego, CA, should
be able to sue the health officials charged with his care for violating
his constitutional rights.
"Today's ruling is a disappointment
and yet another missed opportunity to bring about the meaningful reforms
that our nation's immigration detention system desperately needs," said
Gabriel Eber, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project.
"With today's decision, the Supreme Court has unfortunately closed the
door on an important avenue of accountability for the gross mistreatment
that immigration detainees across the country have suffered."
The medical personnel who were
responsible for providing proper medical care to Castaneda were officers
of the U.S. Public Health Service assigned through the Division of
Immigration Health Services (DIHS). While the federal government
admitted in April 2008 that its negligence was responsible for
Castaneda's death, the government claimed that, under federal law,
individual Public Health Service officials are immunized against
lawsuits alleging that they failed to provide medical care that meets
constitutional minimums. A government physician charged with Castaneda's
care said in sworn testimony that she knew a biopsy was the only way to
determine whether Castaneda had cancer. She failed, however, to arrange
for him to have this critical test.
The ACLU argued in its brief that
holding individual Public Health Service officials accountable for their
unconstitutional misconduct is a vital way to incentive for greater
oversight and reform, as well as deterrence, that are necessary to help
prevent future tragedies like the pain, suffering and death of
The ACLU's brief also argued that
without the ability to hold individual Public Health Service officials
accountable for constitutional violations, victims and their families
have no way of meaningfully addressing the cruel conduct inflicted upon
them. Additionally, the lack of liability severely inhibits the ability
to generate pressure from within DIHS to reform policies that
unconstitutionally restrict detainee medical care.
Documents obtained by the ACLU
through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in 2008 exposed the
deaths of several detainees in detention that the government had never
previously accounted for, a pattern of grossly inadequate medical care
provided to detainees in detention and an intentional campaign of
obfuscation by government officials to hide mistreatment of detainees.
"Today's ruling heightens the urgency
for Congress to take immediate action to reform the immigration
detention system," said Joanne Lin, ACLU Legislative Counsel. "Because
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has proven that it cannot be
trusted to police itself on immigration detention, it is crucial that
meaningful immigration detention reforms be a part of any comprehensive
immigration reform legislation and that Congress exercise strong,
meaningful oversight of ICE."
Among the specific reforms being
advocated by the ACLU are independent oversight of ICE to ensure
transparency, the enactment of legally binding and enforceable detention
standards, the ability of independent observers to visit and monitor
all immigration detention facilities and to require ICE to provide
critical medical treatment - including heart surgeries and biopsies -
regardless of whether the agency arbitrarily deems the care to be
"non-emergency." The ACLU is also urging Congress to swiftly pass the
Strong STANDARDS Act (Safe Treatment, Avoiding Needless Deaths, and
Abuse Reduction in the Detention System).
Additionally, ICE needs to divorce
itself from its over-reliance on immigration detention in the first
place. ICE annually detains approximately 30,000 people in county jails
and other immigration detention facilities, including people fleeing
persecution by other governments, longtime permanent residents with U.S.
citizen children and people with no criminal records. Many ICE
detainees don't warrant being detained and are denied access to the kind
of individualized determinations that are the essence of due process
and the Constitution.
A copy of the ACLU's brief in the
case, Hui v. Castaneda, is
available online at: www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/
Additional information about the ACLU
National Prison Project is available online at: www.aclu.org/prison
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.