A federal appeals court recently issued a decision where they sided with the government after police may have killed an Indianapolis area teen through improper restraint with handcuffs. The court reasoned that because the officers were not aware of the exact reason that the young man was in distress, they cannot be held responsible for his death. 

Shoplifting incident results in the death of a young man

The incident began when a loss prevention employee tried to take the victim into custody for a shoplifting charge at a Burlington Coat Factory Retail Store in 2015. A security guard working in the store saw their exchange and claimed that the victim was armed with a gun at the time as well. The victim tried to run away from the store after taking a watch.

Police later caught up to the victim, but they found him lying near a gas station parking lot and breathing heavily. They tried standing him up or laying him on his side, but his body continually went limp. He weighed approximately 300 pounds at the time. The officers kept him in handcuffs until an EMS employee arrived on the scene. The emergency crews apparently stated that the victim was fine and could be taken into custody, based on the account in police report. When police were ready to transport him to jail afterward, his condition worsened. Another ambulance arrived on the scene and found him unresponsive. They performed CPR for several minutes, but the victim died of cardiac arrest.   

The victim did inform them that he was having trouble breathing at the scene. The official autopsy did list the fact that he was handcuffed as a contributing factor to his breathing troubles and death.  

Police training related to handcuffing suspects and their ability to breathe

The victim’s mother initially filed a lawsuit against the Indianapolis Metro Police for negligence and excessive use of force in 2017. The complaint also states that the way police positioned her son essentially caused him to asphyxiate. Police do receive training about leaving handcuffed suspects on their chest or stomach while their hands are placed behind their backs, due to the potential of asphyxiation or other breathing problems, especially in overweight people. However, the two officers who interacted with the victim at the scene claim they were unaware of this possibility. 

The plaintiff’s attorney believes that the court’s logic could set a dangerous precedent that allows police to get away with all kinds of misconduct as long as they are unaware of a specific health problem or source of distress. This would essentially shift the burden on an ill or injured person to articulate their problems, rather than giving police some basic training regarding first aid. 

Civil lawsuits against the police

In most situations, victims of police brutality are best served by retaining an attorney to file a civil lawsuit on their behalf. Only the government can bring criminal charges against the officer who is responsible, or their department can choose to bring administrative penalties. This means that a civil case gives the victim the most control over a financial remedy. 

Injured people and their families often face an uphill battle when suing the police. Convictions in criminal court against police officers are rare, and many victims accept a settlement agreement to end a lawsuit for a lesser amount.  

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