Court grants new hearing for Maricopa inmate shackled during labor

A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a jury needs to decide whether the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office policy of restraining pregnant women was justified or “went a step too far.” (Photo by Ken Lund/CreativeCommons)

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court ruled Monday that a former Maricopa County jail inmate can sue the sheriff’s office for shackling her while she was in labor and as she left the hospital after giving birth.

Miriam Mendiola-Martinez claimed the county’s restraint policy violated her constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment, as well as endangering the health of her and her infant son, among other charges.

A U.S. District Court judge rejected all of her claims, but a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a narrow portion and ordered a new hearing in the case. The appellate panel said that a jury, not a judge, should decide whether the county’s restraint policy was justified or “went a step too far.”

Calls seeking comment from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and from attorneys in the case were not immediately returned Monday.

Mendiola-Martinez was six months pregnant when she was arrested in October 2009 on charges of forgery and identity theft. She was denied bail under a state law, since declared unconstitutional, because she could not prove she was a legal resident of the U.S.

She pleaded guilty on Dec. 10 and was still in county custody 10 days later when she started having contractions and was taken to the hospital – handcuffed and shackled at her ankles in both the ambulance and while hospital staff monitored her condition.

She was sent back to jail but returned to the hospital the next day in “active labor,” according to the court case. After her son was delivered by cesarean section at 5 p.m., Mendiola-Martinez was taken to a recovery room where she was shackled to the bed with 6 to 8 feet of chain – enough to move around the room, a key part of recovery after a C-section.

She was not restrained during the birth.

Two days later, Mendiola-Martinez was shackled as officers took her for a court appearance. She was sentenced to time served and released from county custody.

Two years later, Mendiola-Martinez filed suit against the sheriff’s office, the county, the Maricopa County Special Health Care District, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and unnamed nurses, doctors and officers.

In addition to the constitutional violations from being shackled, the suit claimed that the sheriff’s office had failed to provide adequate nutrition to her as an expecting mother, and that the sheriff’s office and the hospital did not provide necessary supplies for her as a new mother, specifically a breast pump.

Circuit Judge Richard C. Tallman wrote in Monday’s ruling that that case presented a complex issue – whether the Constitution allows law enforcement officers to “restrain a female inmate while she is pregnant, in labor, or during postpartum recovery.”

The sheriff’s office restraint policy in effect at the time Mendiola-Martinez was in jail said inmates at the medical center had to be restrained at all times, except when “necessary during treatment or examination.” There was no exemption for pregnant inmates, according to the court case.

A policy revision issued four days before Mendiola-Martinez gave birth said restraints were to be removed when an epidural was administered, during active stages of labor or on doctor’s orders, “to protect the mother and baby.” But the appeals court said the revised policy did not appear to apply to Mendiola-Martinez.

An expert witness testified for Mendiola-Martinez that shackling is problematic because of the increased risk of tripping and “potentially life-threatening” fall.

The district court rejected Mendiola-Martinez’s claims on grounds of immunity, without addressing the constitutional violations she raised. But the circuit court said that was the wrong standard, and that there were enough questions in the case to put it to a jury.

“We are mindful that the administration of a penal institution is ‘at best an extraordinarily difficult undertaking,'” Tallman wrote. “Crafting a restraint policy that balances safety concerns with the inmates’ medical needs is equally challenging. But it is not impossible.

“And we leave it to a jury to decide whether the risk the Maricopa County Restraint Policy posed to Mendiola-Martinez was justified, or whether the county went a step too far,” he wrote.

Arizona lawmakers have since banned restraints on pregnant inmates when they are being transported for delivery, during labor, delivery or recovery, unless medical staff request restraints or officers determine the inmate “presents an extraordinary circumstance.”