Does my friend have a case against the police?

My friend (L.) has a brother (J.) who is 44 years old. He has been an alcoholic for at least 20 years. He has a girlfriend (K.) who is also an alcoholic and they have an abusive relationship. Basically, they both get drunk and fight and slap each other around. We’ve tried to help him straighten out his life in the past, but its basically too late at this point.
This past February, J. was thrown in jail for domestic violence against K. Several hours after he was arrested, I called the police station to ask about bond amount and I mentioned to the cop that J. has a serious drinking problem and I was concerned about J. getting sick from alcohol withdrawal. The cop said that J. was fine and they check him every 15 minutes.
The next day I find out from L. that J. is in the hospital because he had a heart attack in his jail cell. They detoxed him in the hospital and he pulled through after 3 weeks. The court decided to drop the charges.
You’d think that would be a wake up call for him, but no. As soon as he was released from the hospital, he and his girlfriend were in love again and happily drinking to their dysfunctional relationship.
Two days ago, the same thing happened. His girlfriend called the cops on him and he was arrested for domestic abuse. A friend of the family called the police station and told them about J’s drinking problem and asked them to please keep an eye on him for any detox symptoms. The cops reassured my friend that J. was ok.
The next day I find out that once again, J is in the hospital after suffering a heart attack. This time the doctors tell my friend that J’s heart is not in good condition and he may not pull through. The latest news I heard was that J was on life support.
Not knowing much about alcohol detox I decided to do some research. From what I read there are many symptoms that occur during alcohol DT’s (shakes, hallucinations, sweating…). If it is left untreated the person may develop cardiac arrest stroke or other potentially fatal occurances. I believe the police ignored earlier symptoms and only got him to a hospital when his condition became grave.
My question is, don’t the police have an obligation to get an inmate health care if they are in danger of dying in the jail cell? What if a severe diabetic is arrested. Do the police have a right to withhold insulin?
I understand that J. is slowly killing himself anyway, but still, what if this was one of your family members? The cops were informed of his addiction and should know the dangers of alcohol withdrawal. J. may or may not pull through this, but if he doesn’t, do you think his sister has a case against the police?

Yes, have her call the attorney general’s office.

I don’t know about the case itself but severe alcohol withdrawal can be very serious and possibly deadly like you say and it has to be treated as a serious medical issue. All general care doctors know how to do a rudimentary alcohol detox with a tapered dose of pills. It isn’t that hard even if done from a jail cell in the most basic way so that was negligent IMHO. A full medical evaluation takes much longer and a lot more money. Almost all long-term alcoholics develop other problems like malnutrition that also have to be addressed at some point. At the very least, they shouldn’t have let him slip into DT’s. Those are sometimes semi-irreversible once they start and the death rate is significant if left untreated. There are plenty of perfectly visible signs that happen hours or days before it comes to that and they should know what those are (again, pretty obvious to most anyone).

Based on U.S. law – Yes, provided the police know about the medical condition and the danger it presented. Federal law provides that a government entity holding a person in custody cannot be “deliberately indifferent to a serious medical need.” (Estelle v. Gamble.) So if the police knew of the inmate’s serous medical condition, they were required to not be deliberatly indifferent to it, and that includes take steps to address it if necessary. Note that I am not commenting on whether or not the police did address it in this case, or whether they addressed it adequately. But if you’re asking whether there is a general legal duty based on the custodial relationship, the answer is “yes.”

No, they don’t, and in fact they must appropriately address the inmate’s serious medical need if they are aware of it. (“Awareness of the problem” is required because one cannot be “deliberately indifferent” – the legal standard – to something one is unaware of.)

Hard to say, without knowing what, if anything, the police did in his case. Questions a lawyer would want to have answered include: Was there medical staff at the facility at which he was held? Was there a detox protocol, and was he started on it? Was he monitored every 15 minutes? Did he show signs of steep decline, or did he just crash after being apparently okay? Was the heart attack attributable to detox, or was it unrelated? How quickly did they try to help him, and how did they try to help him? IOW, it is completely possible that the facility did everything right – medical staff on site, detox protocol started with appropriate meds, monitor him closely – and the guy still strokes out from the detox. I’m not saying that happened here – how would I know? – but merely pointing out that a bad result doesn’t necessarily mean the police did anything wrong.

The fact is that alcohol detox can be extraordinarily dangerous – worse in terms of chances for fatality than heroin detox. But, at the same time, the average alcohol detox does not require hospitalization if appropriate care can be given outside the hospital. The problem is that there’s no way to tell the alcohol detox where serious medical intervention is needed, from the alcohol detox where serious medical intervention is not needed – until the person crashes. And even when the best medical support is given, like in a hospital, sometimes people die from it.

The attorney general isn’t going to help.

If you have concerns regarding the level of care provided by the facility, your best bet is to contact the state agency that has authority to inspect or regulate local detention facilities or jails. You can also contact the governing body of the entity that runs the jail – the county commission or the city council – as well as the head of the agency that runs the jail – the sheriff or police chief.

As far as a lawsuit is concerned, a suit for money damages arising out of a failure to provide medical care in a jail, would be a civil suit brought in either state court of Federal court (or both) and the family members or inmate would need to hire a private attorney to undertake that for them.

I practice medicine in a prison.

I’ve had guys handle the DTs just fine, only to have an MI because they didn’t bother to inform us they were supposed to be on any cardiac drugs at all. The librium handles the withdrawal, but the absense of metoprolol and aspirin became critical from a heart standpoint.

So maybe the jail screwed up, or maybe not. The inmate must take some responsibility for properly reporting their actual medical history. Also properly reporting just how much they did drink and drug, etc. I’ve had guys go into heroin WD after swearing up and down they’d been clean for years. Or go into DTs after telling me they’d not had a drink in 4 months.

QtM, skeptical but not yet cynical about what patients say. (Skeptical: Is what he told me actually true, and how can I find out? Cynical: My first thought was “he lied with every word”)

Since this is a request for legal advice on a specific case, I’m going to close it. Please see a legal professional for advice about your case.

General Questions Moderator