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Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017 12:11 am

County defends tasing epileptics

Inmate sues after jail tasing

 

Inmates who act up due to medical problems can be tased, even if their medical condition renders them incapable of understanding guards.

That’s the stance taken by the Sangamon County sheriff’s office in a lawsuit filed by an epileptic inmate who was twice tased while suffering a seizure.

Richard E. Haley has no memory of what happened on March 20, 2013. When he regained consciousness from his seizure, he was handcuffed to a wheelchair and had to be told that he’d been tased. Haley, who was serving time for domestic battery, had suffered seizures before at the jail, according to his lawsuit. During previous seizures, guards had taken him to either Memorial Medical Center or St. John’s Hospital.

This time was different.

Guards arrived at Haley’s cell in response to calls for help from Haley’s cellmate, who told them that Haley was having a seizure, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Springfield. Aaron Conard, a guard, squeezed one of Haley’s thumbs in an attempt to revive him. Haley pulled his hand away. Conard then attempted a “sternum rub,” which only worsened matters, according to Carl Draper, Haley’s lawyer.

“A sternum rub is a really hard poke on the sternum,” Draper said. “It’s to provoke pain to see if you can get a response.”

Haley reflexively knocked Conard’s hand away, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Springfield. When Conard tried another sternum rub, Haley grabbed his hand and began kicking and punching at guards, the county says in court documents. He also attempted to bite a guard’s leg. All the while, he was suffering from a seizure and so couldn’t understand what anyone was saying to him, according to the lawsuit.

After several minutes, Lt. William Smith, who has been certified as a Taser instructor and trains other officers, told Haley that he would be tased if he did not stop resisting guards who were attempting to handcuff him. The jail staff was concerned only that Haley was “combative,” according to the county’s motion for summary judgment in the case. When the first shock had no effect, Smith zapped Haley a second time, which immobilized the inmate enough that guards were able to handcuff him.

“The medical issue wasn’t our concern at that point in time,” Smith testified during a deposition.

Haley also claims that guards used pepper spray, but the defendants say no spray was deployed.

The county’s justification for tasing a man in the midst of an epileptic seizure echoes the county’s stance in a lawsuit filed by the widow of Amon Paul Carlock that was settled in 2014 for $2.6 million, with lawyers retained by the county collecting a like amount. Carlock, whose diabetes had not been adequately addressed and so was suffering from liver and kidney failure, died shortly after a 2007 struggle with jailers. He acted irrationally and resisted jailers due to his deteriorating medical condition, lawyers for the plaintiffs argued, and jailers responded by tasing him, putting him in restraint chairs and otherwise treating him as if he were just another misbehaving inmate. In one court filing, lawyers for the county wrote “if mistakes were made in the application of force, the mistakes were reasonable given Carlock’s conduct.”

In the Haley case, the county says that the inmate was struggling with jailers and would not obey commands, and so Taser use was justified, even though guards testified during depositions that they did not know whether Haley could understand orders due to his seizure. The use-of-force policy is bolstered by Patrick J. McGee, a retired Cook County sheriff’s officer retained by the county as an expert.

“A reasonable officer may use force to protect himself from being injured by a combative inmate or detainee regardless of the reasons for the inmate or detainee’s aggressive behavior,” McGee wrote in a report filed in the case.

However, the county in court documents concedes that guards have been trained to roll inmates on their sides, ensure that their heads are not hitting anything and wait for a seizure to take its course. Attorneys for Haley say that he wasn’t resisting guards and that it isn’t possible for anyone during and immediately after a seizure to engage in active resistance. The jail has cameras, but there was no camera in place that captured the altercation.

Seizures aren’t an everyday occurrence at the jail, but they happen every other month or so, according to a deposition given by Lt. Chris Doetsch, who responded when Haley suffered seizures before and after the one that prompted guards to use a Taser. The lieutenant testified that Haley, whom he didn’t consider a problem inmate, didn’t seem in control of himself during and immediately after seizures. During one episode, he testified, guards took control of Haley’s arms and held him down on a mattress to ensure he wouldn’t hurt himself or anyone else. At one point, he said, he arranged for Haley to be housed alone because he was sometimes combative when coming out of a seizure.

Sgt. Todd Krueger, who responded to three seizures suffered by Haley in the jail, said during a deposition that he never saw Haley become combative during or immediately after a seizure, but combative behavior isn’t unusual when inmates emerge from seizures.

“I have stopped them from punching me when they come out of the seizure,” Krueger testified. “And then once they realize where they are at and what’s going on, we are all good. … If it’s a legitimate seizure, then odds are they are just scared and they don’t know what they are doing or they are just coming out of it, they are scared, and they are trying to get away or trying to get us away.”

Krueger also testified that not all seizures in the jail are real.

“There has been times when inmates have tried to fake seizures to draw us in, and then they want to kind of like spring a trap on us,” Krueger said. “They will fake a seizure to bring us in close, and then once we get close and our guard is down, they will try to swing on us.”

Conard said he attempted to help when Haley suffered a seizure one month after he was tased, but he left the cellblock because his presence was causing a disruption.

“The inmates were accusing me of using excessive force on Mr. Haley,” Conard explained during a deposition.

Haley is asking for $250,000. In the event a judge doesn’t grant the county’s pending motion to dismiss the case, a trial has been set for May 1.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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