Wrongful Deaths in County Jails to Challenge Federal Law
While no one thinks of jail as a particularly enjoyable place, no one expects a short stay to result in death. However, that is precisely what happened in the recent cases of Michael Saffioti and Bradley Munroe — both of which are beginning to attract national controversy. Following a missed court date for a marijuana misdemeanor charge, Saffioti turned himself in to local authorities — and died in his jail cell. Bradley Munroe killed himself in a jail cell after signs of a need for medication and close monitoring went ignored. Now, Saffioti’s family is filing a lawsuit for $10 million, and Munroe’s family is taking their case before the United States Supreme Court. The legal community — and the rest of the nation — is watching both cases unfold.
Michael Saffioti Dies in County Jail Following Severe Allergic Reaction
In July of 2012, 22-year-old Washington man Michael Saffioti failed to appear at his court date for a marijuana misdemeanor in Snohomish County. On July 2nd, Saffioti turned himself in to local authorities, who placed the young man in the Snohomish County Jail. But he would never be released.
On the morning of July 3rd, Saffioti received an oatmeal breakfast from correctional officers. He was a lifelong sufferer of debilitating dairy allergies — allergies so severe he was reportedly called “bubble boy,” in reference to the famous cases of individuals with such frail immune systems that they were forced to live in sterile environments. Concerned about his allergies, he asked for details about the oatmeal, but ultimately began to eat the food he was provided with.
Video footage shows the rest. Several minutes later, Saffioti can be seen using his inhaler and requesting to see the jail nurse. His request was denied, and he returned to his cell. Approximately half an hour later, he collapsed on the floor of that cell, unconscious, at which point medical staff attempted CPR and rushed the struggling Saffioti to the hospital.
Their actions, however, were to no avail — Saffioti would be dead within the hour.
Bradley Munroe Commits Suicide in County Jail
Like Michael Saffioti, Bradley Munroe was young — just 19 years old — which only adds to the devastation of this double-tragedy. It is one of many eerie parallels between their two cases.
In fact, the catalyst for the young men’s jail sentences is one of the only ways in which the cases differ significantly. Saffioti found himself in Snohomish County Jail following a failure to appear at a court date for a marijuana misdemeanor; Munroe was sent to Ada County Jail in Ada County, Idaho, after he robbed a convenience store.
The robbery itself took place under strange circumstances. In fact, Munroe was said to be acting so bizarrely that once he was brought to Ada County, he was placed under suicide watch.
But that was where the proper handling ended.
The following morning, Munroe was interviewed twice by prison personnel — first briefly by a social worker, for a little under five minutes, and then by a booking deputy. The social worker, whose interview with Munroe was limited, saw nothing amiss. The deputy found that Munroe still appeared to be a suicide risk, saying he saw “shadow people.” But in a perplexing action, or lack thereof, he failed to alert the jail’s medical staff.
In a cry for help, Munroe, who struggled with mental illness and took medication to manage it, called his girlfriend to confess his suicidal thoughts. Concerned, she then relayed this information back to Munroe’s mother, who, obviously alarmed, called the jail to notify staff. Not only did the same social worker fail to take any action, Ada County personnel did arguably the worst thing they could have. They brought Munroe — whom they knew was suicidal — to an isolated cell, complete with a bunk bed and bedsheets, where he could not be closely monitored.
Munroe was pronounced dead that evening.
Munroe had been to the Ada County Jail in the past. Jail personnel were aware of Munroe’s medical situation, and his history with suicidal behavior.
Grieving Families Takes Legal Action
Saffioti’s death has sparked a storm of controversy and outrage — and his family is at the heart of it. Struggling to understand what led to their son’s death, his family attempted to recover video footage of the incident. In November of 2012, several months later, county officials denied existence of any footage, spurring increased pressure from the family’s attorneys. 41 minutes of footage were later surrendered, but Saffioti’s death was not included.
While the incident might seem to be a freak occurrence, this is not the first time an inmate death has occurred within the walls of Snohomish County — far from it. In the past three years, eight people have died in Snohomish County Jail. An investigation by the National Institute of Corrections states that the jail is “seriously understaffed,” and that “overcrowding in the jail has caused serious safety hazards.”
As in the case of Munroe, it was not Saffioti’s first stay at the prison. The nickname “bubble boy”? It didn’t come from childhood schoolmates. It came from fellow inmates — during a previous sentence in Snohomish. This is leading attorneys to believe that jail personnel should have been well aware of the 22-year-old’s allergies and dietary needs.
As of October, 2013, the Saffioti family is filing a lawsuit seeking damages of $10 million.
Munroe’s family is also finding themselves at the heart of a media storm in the midst of their grief. Not only has the conduct of Ada County Jail personnel attracted reporters, so has Munroe’s parents’ plan: to take their case all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
In Idaho, state law prevents personal injury claims from being pursued when the plaintiff in the case has passed away. This means that while Munroe’s family members may seek damages for what they have suffered, they cannot pursue a case on behalf of Munroe himself. Instead, the family claimed that because Munroe’s Constitutional rights were violated — but again, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that those rights, just like the personal injury claims, ended at the time of Munroe’s death. This ruling runs counter to what many federal appeals courts would have decided, and now, in the pursuit of justice, the family is going even further. They are taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court with the argument that, because those Constitutional violations are precisely what caused Munroe’s death, shouldn’t his rights now be upheld after death?
The Idaho Supreme Court doesn’t think so. But if Munroe’s family can manage to see Idaho’s decision reversed, it could be a massive victory, not just for Munroe, but for victims of rights violations across the country. Because as the matter currently stands in Idaho, there is no apparent legal deterrent against violating a citizen’s rights — even if those violations lead to death.
Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer Darwin Overson of the law firm Overson Law represents the Munroe family before the United States Supreme Court along with the law firm of Jones & Swartz of Boise, Idaho. In addition, the Stanford Law School United States Supreme Court Clinic has lent its assistance to representation. The Stanford Clinic is being headed up by Pam Karlan, law professor at Stanford Law School. Under Professor Karlan’s guidance, the Stanford Law Clinic has had a long line of successes in the country’s highest court.
Ada County and its employees are being represented by the Ada County District Attorney and former federal judge and current professor at the University of Utah Paul Cassell. Professor Cassell is enlisting the assistance of the University of Utah Law School’s Appellate Clinic in opposing the petition for certiorari in the United States Supreme Court. The legal battle that is going on is populated on both sides by some of the top legal minds in the country. The case is important and should be watched closely.