Whitley v. Albers

LOCATION: Rhode Island District Court

DOCKET NO.: 84-1077
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 475 US 312 (1986)
ARGUED: Dec 10, 1985
DECIDED: Mar 04, 1986

Dave Frohnmayer - on behalf of the Petitioners
Gene B. Mechanic - on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

The case started during the rebellion that took place at the Oregon State Penitentiary. It was began because the prisoners decided that the prison guards mistreated them. The jail was destroyed, and two wardens were attacked, and one was captured and retained in the cell on the upper level of the cellblock.

The jail employers attempted to prove to jailers that no misconduct from their side had never been.

Richard Klenk led the riot and threatened to kill the captured guard. The wardens decided to rescue him but firstly proposed to inmates to end the riot. After the decline the prison captain Whitley entered the cell with 20 guards, 5 of them had the shotguns. The Klenk chased them, and then the security officer adjured to fire a warning low shot at any inmates with the purpose to relieve the hostage. One of the officer, after made a warning shot, shot one of the protesters, Albers, in the left knee when he ascended the stairs.

The wounded sued before the district court against prison administration arguing on the violation of his rights proven by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The judges confirmed the opinion of the plaintiff, but the Court of Appeals changed this ruling and ordered a new revise of the case by the eight amendment.

The Supreme Court overtook the suit and upheld that the firing a weapon did not infringe the constitutional guarantees of not being subjected to cruel and unusual penalties. Because it was caused by the reason to maintain the security in jail, to end the illegal riot and to free the captured guard.

The case study of Whitley v. Albers underlined that the discussed action didn`t exceed the power of wardens and could not be considered as vicious as it was aimed to stabilize the situation during the rebellion. The judges confirmed their opinion by that the officer informed about the starting of firing a weapon and make it as low as possible to prevent the injuries.

Hence, the case brief concluded that plaintiff has not deprived of his right accordingly to the Eight Amendment, and all actions of the guards were essential and net the reasonable purposes.


Media for Whitley v. Albers

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 10, 1985 in Whitley v. Albers

Warren E. Burger:

We hear argument first this morning in Whitley v. Albers.

Mr. Attorney General, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Dave Frohnmayer:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case is before this Court on a writ of certiorari to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

During a 1980 prison riot in Oregon, officials formed a plan to restore order and to rescue a hostage whose life had been threatened by a knife-wielding inmate.

An unarmed prison official vaulted over an inmate-constructed barricade and raced up a flight of stairs to the cell in which the hostage was being held.

An inmate, Respondent Albers here, ran up after him.

Pursuant to prior orders, and armed official shot, but shot low, in order to present Respondent and a fellow inmate from getting up the stairs and thereby potentially impeding the rescue attempt.

In this incident, which the record shows took place from start to finish in less time than I have now taken to describe it, the hostage was successfully rescued, but Respondent Albers suffered a serious and permanent injury to his knee.

The district court below concluded that the evidence presented no basis from which a jury could conclude that the cruel and unusual punishments clause of the Eighth Amendment had been violated.

Respondent and the Ninth Circuit have disagreed, so that this case places squarely the issue as to in the aftermath of this difficult decision, how far the hindsight of a jury can intrude into prison security decisions.

Is it the role of the jury to sort through the waste pile of discarded or unconsidered hostage rescue plans, decide that one of them might have been better, and on that basis assess personal monetary liability against prison officials for a constitutional violation?

We submit that the Ninth Circuit has permitted a jury to do what this Court repeatedly has told judges themselves to refrain from doing.

And this case is of extraordinary practical importance because when they are faced with an out break of violence, prison officials must act.

They do not have the luxury of after-the-fact reflection.

The maintenance of security, as this Court has repeatedly indicated, is the most essential aspect of the maintaining of prison itself.

And if officials do not retain control or regain it, the lives of staff and inmates alike are continually at risk, and the officials have abdicated their essential official responsibility.

I will argue this morning for the validity of four proposition which should control the outcome of this case: first, that the record shows no proof of wantonness or cruelty in this hostage rescue action, which is essential to establish an Eighth Amendment violation; secondly, that there was no proof that Albers' injury was inflicted unnecessarily, that is to say, totally without penological justification; third, that the Ninth Circuit's reasonableness standard ignores the deference and discretion, the latitude for official judgment which this Court in numerous constitutional cases has repeatedly said is essential for the administration of prisons; and finally, that the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit incorrectly interpreted this Court's standards of qualified immunity and it also ignored the total absence of meaningful case law as guidance for prison officials when it denied the existence of immunity for the prison officials in this case.

Let me now recapitulate the facts in more detail because they demonstrate the justice of our cause.

On June 27th in 1980 the inmates in Cellblock A of the Oregon State Prison became upset.

They suspected that other inmates had been mistreated.

They disobeyed a cell-in order given by prison officials.

One of the two guards on the block was taken hostage; the other was assaulted.

There was fighting among the inmates, destruction of the furniture in the cellblock was virtually complete, and despite a demonstration to a selected group of the inmates that others in fact had not been abused, the inmates still retained control.

Richard Klenk was a main instigator of the riot.

He was armed with a knife.

He reported that he had already killed one inmate and would kill others, and he made it clear that if there were any attempt to retain control... regain control of the cellblock, that he would cut the throat of the hostage guard.

The plan that was adopted called for Captain Whitley to enter unarmed at a time when Klenk was away from the hostage cell.

Surprise about the timing and nature of the assault obviously was a key element.

Whitley's objective was to secure the safety and return of the hostage officer.