Presented by the Public Entity & Civil Rights Litigation Practice Group

Third Circuit Clarifies Availability of Qualified Immunity for Police Officers Accused of Deliberate Indifference to Arrestees’ Need for Medical Care Following Ingestion of Narcotics

In Thomas v. City of Harrisburg, et al., 2023 WL 8461096 (3d Cir. Dec. 6, 2023), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently determined that police officers were not entitled to qualified immunity where they were aware of, and consciously disregarded, an arrestee’s need for medical care after ingesting a large amount of drugs.

On December 14, 2019, a Harrisburg police officer and a Dauphin County Adult Probation officer conducted a traffic stop after observing Terelle Thomas exit a bar and enter his vehicle. The police officer observed that Thomas had what appeared to be strands of gum and paste in his mouth as he spoke, that his face was covered with a white powdery substance, and that his lips were “pasty white.” Although Thomas informed the officer that the substance was the residue of candy cigarettes, the officer’s subsequent report confirmed her belief that he had ingested a large amount of cocaine in order to conceal it from her. Additional officers who reported to the scene each arrived at the same conclusion and warned Thomas that ingesting cocaine could lead to serious harm or death. Thomas was thereafter transferred to the Dauphin County Booking Center, where he was observed by medical personnel before being placed in a holding cell. Shortly after, Thomas fell backwards, hit his head, and suffered cardiac arrest. He was taken to the hospital and died three days later of cocaine and fentanyl toxicity.

A relative of Thomas’s brought suit against the city of Harrisburg, the police department, and various individual police officers, amongst others, arguing that they had violated Thomas’s constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment in two ways: (1) by failing to render medical care and (2) by failing to intervene to prevent a violation of his right to medical care. The police officers filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that they were entitled to qualified immunity from the plaintiff’s claims. The United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania denied the officers’ motion, finding that they were not entitled to qualified immunity on either count because the plaintiff had adequately pled the existence of each constitutional violation and that each right was clearly established at the time.

As to the plaintiff’s first claim, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the lower court’s disposition and determined that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity for their alleged failure to render medical care. The court stated that the plaintiff had pled sufficient facts establishing that each officer individually was aware of the high likelihood that Thomas had ingested a dangerous amount of cocaine and was deliberately indifferent to his need for medical care. It noted in support that the police department’s handbook required officers to take individuals in custody to the hospital if they have consumed narcotics which may jeopardize their health. Further, the court determined that Thomas’s right to medical care after ingesting drugs was “obvious” and thus clearly established, despite a dearth of directly on-point case law.

As to the plaintiff’s second claim, however, the Third Circuit reversed the lower court’s disposition regarding the officers’ alleged failure to intervene to prevent a violation of Thomas’s right to medical care. The court noted that neither it nor the United States Supreme Court had recognized a clearly established right to intervention in the context of medical care. Based on this determination, the court did not consider whether the officers’ conduct constituted a violation of such right and concluded that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on that claim.


Legal Update for Public Entity & Civil Rights Litigation, January 3, 2024, has been prepared for our readers by Marshall Dennehey. It is solely intended to provide information on recent legal developments and is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. We welcome the opportunity to provide such legal assistance as you require on this and other subjects. ATTORNEY ADVERTISING pursuant to New York RPC 7.1. © 2024 Marshall Dennehey. All Rights Reserved.