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Family sues police after taser-related death in 2017

SoVaNow.com / May 15, 2019




The Philadelphia law firm that sued the town of South Boston four years ago when a man died in police custody after being subdued by Tasers is now seeking legal damages against South Hill Police and the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office in the 2017 death of Sabin Marcus Jones of South Hill.

Plaintiffs are seeking damages of an undisclosed amount for alleged violations of Jones’ civil rights, police brutality, false arrest, and wrongful death in a civil suit filed in U.S. District Court in Richmond.

Jones, 44, died in January 2017, four days after he was subdued by officers using Taser stun guns for allegedly resisting arrest and threatening police who sought to take him into custody under an emergency order requested by a family member.

The cause of death was listed by Medical Examiner Michael Hayes as “complications of anoxic brain injury due to excited delirium syndrome associated with schizophrenia, physical exertion and conducted electrical weapon use.”

Messa & Associates, located in Philadelphia, represents Violet Smith, Jones’ mother and the administrator of his estate. It is the same firm that represented the family of Linwood Lambert of Richmond, whose members sought millions in legal damages against the Town of South Boston after Lambert’s death in 2013.

That lawsuit, filed in 2015, drew national attention after the law firm produced a video of Lambert, a Richmond construction worker staying in South Boston for employment at a job site, being tasered multiple times by South Boston officers outside the emergency room of Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital. That case, also filed in federal court, was settled, and the terms were never disclosed.

Named defendants in the Jones family lawsuit are the Town of South Hill, South Hill Police Department, Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, South Hill Police Chief Stuart Bowen, South Hill Police Cpl. Chris Parrott, South Hill Police Officer M. Waters, Investigator B.J. Mull — who is described is erroneously described in the lawsuit as “an Investigator with the South Hill Police Department” — South Hill Police Sgt.Scott Zincone, Sheriff R.W. “Bobby” Hawkins, Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Major Terry Edmonds, and Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s deputies Davis Cumbia, Troy Walker, and Bruce King.

The individual defendants are asking to be dismissed from the complaint under the legal doctrine of qualified immunity, which grants officers latitude to carry out their duties without fear of legal reprisal. Defendants also responded that the complaint fails to state a claim and that Smith lacks the legal authority to pursue legal action.

Jones had a long history of mental illness that, according to allegations in the complaint, was known to local police. The lawsuit is also claims that Jones had been released from the Virginia Beach Psychiatric Center two weeks before his death, but it is unclear if this information was shared with police at the time of the incident that is the basis of Smith’s complaint.

On the morning of Jan. 20, 2017, Jones’ aunt, Sheila Holmes, obtained an Emergency Custody Order (ECO) for her nephew, alleging that he was a danger to himself and others as he was not taking his prescribed medication, was using crack cocaine and hallucinating, and talking of killing and suicide. She further alleged that he left the stove in his house turned on in an attempt to burn down the house.

A Mecklenburg County magistrate signed the ECO at 10:41 a.m., Jan. 20. Later that afternoon, Holmes notified police they could find her nephew parked in his car at a convenience store in South Hill.

The complaint goes on to claim that Holmes looked on from an undisclosed location as eight officers from the South Hill Police Department and Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office arrived at the scene, blocked Jones from leaving the store area with their cruisers and attempted to coax him from his car.

Notwithstanding the ECO, the complaint contends that at the time of the incident during which a Taser was used on Jones, he was “not under the influence of any drugs or alcohol, and not a threat to anyone.”

The complaint further assets that despite knowing of Jones’ mental illness, officers “smashed his window [in his car] and dragged him from his vehicle … threw [Jones} to the ground and laid on him, … tased him repeatedly, … [and] pumped the area around [Jones’] heart with a deadly amount of voltage.”

An unnamed eyewitness is said to have “begged the officers to ‘get off’ Jones because ‘he can’t breathe’” and to have seen “the officers place a cloth in [Jones’] mouth.”

During this time Jones allegedly suffered a “shocking, violent and unconstitutional seizure” rendering him unresponsive. He died four days later at VCU Medical Center in Richmond.

Following Jones’ arrest and death, South Hill Police Chief Stuart Bowen and Mecklenburg County Sheriff Bobby Hawkins asked Virginia State Police to investigate. Smith acknowledges in her complaint that investigators found that as officers attempted to serve Jones with the Emergency Custody Order, they first made repeated attempts to “talk to Jones and have him exit his locked vehicle.”

The investigator’s findings, which are referenced in the complaint, also note that during his exchange with officers Jones “became increasing agitated … began kicking and punching the inside of [his car], … exited the vehicle in an aggressive manner towards the deputies and officers … became increasingly combative, [and] began banging his head against the ground” as officers attempted to handcuff him.

A South Hill police officer is said to have used a Taser to stun Jones as police struggled to place handcuffs on him. While the complaint asserts that Jones was transported to VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital in South Hill because he was “unresponsive,” State Police investigators determined that Jones was taken to the hospital in South Hill because of his “heightened state of agitation and contact with the Taser.”

Attorneys Joseph Messa and Thomas Sweeney say they are basing their suit on a 2016 U.S. Court of Appeals case out of North Carolina that “established a clear rule regarding use of force when seizing an out-numbered, mentally-ill individual who poses no threat to anyone other than himself. These officers did not act within the scope of their duties and instead crossed the line set forth by the court, infringing upon Marcus Jones’ constitutional rights, and killing him.”

Defendants do not dispute that South Hill Police Officer Waters deployed a Taser on Jones, or that Jones died within days of the exchange. They dispute the claims of excessive force, police brutality, assault and battery, false arrest, failure to provide adequate medical care, and deprivation of civil rights. They seek a dismissal of the complaint on the grounds that Messa and Sweeney’s reliance on the North Carolina case is misplaced since Jones posed an immediate threat to the officers attempting to serve him with the ECO, and according to his aunt, he was a threat to others.

Defendants further argue that they have qualified immunity for their actions. They make the additional point that the “vague and conclusory boilerplate assertions” found in Smith’s complaint includes “expansive swathes of allegations,” down to the same typographical errors copied from Smalls v. Binner — the 2015 civil suit that Messa and Sweeney filed against town police in South Boston in the wake of Lambert’s death. These assertions are not supported by the facts in the Marcus Jones case, defendants assert.

Attorneys representing defendants Hawkins, Edmonds, Cumbia, Walker, and King argue that the complaint contains no allegations that anyone from that office fired a Taser or used excessive force on Jones.

In a separate motion, these same defendants are asking the court to strike the allegation that defendants murdered Jones, calling the language “immaterial, impertinent or scandalous” and not based in fact as none of the defendants have been charged with a crime.

The same allegation was made in the Smalls case and the court ordered it struck from the complaint, finding that “the word ‘murder’ could not have been chosen for any other purpose but to inflame the passions of the court and the public” and “is both immaterial and impertinent to the particular issues before the court,” the defense filing states.

No timetable has been set for the Richmond federal court to rule on various motions or decide if the action can proceed.



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Comments

Got to love it when they cops say they can't be sued. I don't dislike cops, but I really hate their holier than thou attitude. You chose this job cause you like to have power. I also have problems with the state ECO program where anyone can call it in. I am an NREMT-I and have seen it.


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