Guards immune from claim after removing inmate’s cap

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Pennsylvania prison officials were entitled to qualified immunity from a religious-liberty claim filed by an inmate after officers removed his kufi (a cap worn for religious purposes) to take his photograph, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

In December 2007, guards at State Correctional Institution in Forest escorted inmate Yassin Haythame Mohamad from a restricted cellblock to be photographed. Inmates are often photographed for security and identification purposes. When Lt. Barry Smith removed Mohamad’s kufi, Mohamad said he would not be photographed without his cap. Mohamad said the cap was central to his religious faith, which was not identified in the appeals court opinion.

Guards had to escort and hold Mohamad to have the photo taken because he had a history of what the federal appeals court termed “assaultive behavior.” The officers also had to use a spit shield to prevent Mohamad from spitting on them. As the guards tried to hold Mohamad for the photo he, allegedly pushed into one of them and then several officers tackled him to the ground.

In November 2009, Mohamad filed a federal lawsuit against Smith and other officers, alleging rough handling and violation of several constitutional rights. Among his claims, he contended that the officers violated his religious liberties under the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment.

A federal district court dismissed Mohamad’s constitutional claims. He appealed to the 3rd Circuit, a three-judge panel of which affirmed the lower court’s decision. The panel determined in its Aug. 16 opinion in Mohamad v. Smith that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity, which shields government officials from liability unless they violated clearly established constitutional or statutory rights.

The defendants were able to show that they acted according to state prison policy requiring all head gear to be removed when inmate identification photos are taken.

“Mohamad presented no evidence that Smith violated any protocol or any clearly established right by removing his kufi so that his photograph could be taken,” the panel wrote.

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