A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by the family of an Honduran man who, after being separated from his family under the government’s zero tolerance policy, died by suicide in a Starr County jail cell in November 2018.
U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez ruled that the U.S. government could not be held accountable for the death of Marco Antonio Muñoz who was discovered dead in his jail cell after having been apprehended at the border with his wife and their then-3-year-old son.
Alvarez granted the motion by the U.S. government to dismiss the case against them, citing the discretionary function exception of the Federal Tort Claims Act.
The exception prohibits claims against the government that are based upon the exercise, of the failure to exercise, a discretionary function.
Legal representation for the family, which includes attorneys with the Texas Civil Rights Project, argued that Muñoz’s separation from his family was required, and not discretionary.
The U.S. government, however, responded that the family separation policy was implemented under the discretion of the U.S. Attorney General, an argument with which Alvarez agreed.
Muñoz’s separation from his wife and son was a result of the federal government’s zero tolerance policy that led to family separations at the border.
Under the direction of then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department of Homeland Security adopted that policy in April 2018, which called for the referral of all unlawful border crossings to the U.S. Department of Justice for prosecution.
If individuals who unlawfully crossed the border were a child, they were separated from that child.
Muñoz crossed the border into the U.S. near Granjeno on May 11, 2018, with his widow, Orlanda del Carmen Peña Arita, and their son.
After they were apprehended by CBP agents, the three were transported to the McAllen Central Processing Center where Muñoz was separated from his family.
When he was apprehended Muñoz had requested medical aid for blisters on his feet; however, the agents allegedly refused to provide any medical assistance while he was in their custody.
Muñoz and Peña had requested medical aid because Muñoz had developed blisters on his feet, the complaint stated, but CBP agents allegedly refused to provide any medical assistance while he was in their custody.
The following day at the central processing center, he was briefly reunited with his family for interviewing and finger-printing.
Muñoz became emotionally distressed and erratic, however, when he was forcibly separated from his family again.
That day, he was transported to the Starr County Detention Center where, shortly upon arrival, Muñoz got into a physical altercation with two detention officers.
“Following this altercation, and having observed Mr. Muñoz’s overall unstable and distressed state, Starr County detention officers knew or should have known that Mr. Muñoz posed a danger to himself or others,” argued the attorneys for the family. “Starr County detention officers knew that Mr. Muñoz was suffering from mental distress, but did not seek psychiatric care for Mr. Muñoz.”
Muñoz was placed in a padded cell and, the attorneys noted, the detention officers allowed him to keep an article of clothing with long sleeves.
That night, Muñoz took the clothing and tied one end of it to a drainage grate on the floor of the cell, and made a noose with the other end.
He slipped the noose around his neck, laid down in the middle of the cell and flipped his body over several times, resulting in the tightening of the noose around his neck and cutting off his circulation.
His body was discovered the next morning, May 13, 2018.
Attorneys for Muñoz’s family argued that the detention officers failed to have face-to-face interactions with Muñoz as required by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for individuals who are “known to be assaultive, potentially suicidal, mentally ill, or who have demonstrated bizarre behavior.”
Judge Alvarez dismissed the claims against the state defendants — including the Starr County detention officers and Starr County Sheriff Rene “Orta” Fuentes — ruling that the allegations against them did not overcome their qualified immunity.
“The mere fact that a detainee is hostile, belligerent, distraught, or erratic and is placed in a jail cell in which it is possible for the detainee to commit suicide is insufficient to establish the requisite ‘deliberate indifference’ standard,” Alvarez stated in the written opinion.
Claims against individual agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection were also dismissed by Alvarez; she ruled that the allegations raised “implicate governmental policy, national security, and separation-of-powers concerns.”
Starr County remains as the lone defendant in the case and Alvarez ruled that Muñoz’s family can still pursue the case against them under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Attorneys for Muñoz’s family argue that “violent separation” from his family by CBP agents “constituted a mental impairment that substantially limited his abilities to think, separate reality from paranoia, communicate, and care for himself,” according to the complaint. “Mr. Muñoz’ mental impairment therefore qualified as a disability under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.”
They allege that Starr County and the detention officers therefore had the responsibility to “provide safe confinement, including safe housing and adequate monitoring.”
Alvarez ruled that the family can file an amended complaint under the ADA.
They must file it consistent with Tuesday’s ruling, or let the court know how they will proceed, by July 17.
Robert S. Davis, the attorney for Starr County, but who also represented the other state defendants, said on Wednesday that he was happy with Alvarez’s ruling.
“The county essentially has policies and procedures that are approved by the Texas Jail Standards Commission for dealing with inmates who may have disabilities,” Davis said. “And the county is fully complaint in dealing with disabled inmates as approved by Texas Jail Standards.”
Efrén C. Olivares, Racial and Economic Justice Director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, stated their work on this case was not over.
“We’ll continue seeking justice for this family,” Olivares stated in an email. “This case also serves as a reminder that family separations continue at the border, although they do not receive as much coverage lately. The administration’s ‘expulsions’ policy has resulted in dozens of family separations in the last two months, and ICE’s refusal to release families from detention together in light of last week’s federal order to release children because of the COVID-19 outbreaks presents a real risk that new separations will take place.”