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Case Over Heroin Baggy Choke Advanced in NJ

(CN) - New Jersey police officers blamed for the choking death of a man who swallowed a bag of heroin failed to upend federal civil claims against them.

Jorge Rivera was on a street corner in Camden, N.J., on April 22, 2009, when three officers with the local drugs task force allegedly saw him trying to sell drugs.

As the officers descended, the 300-pound Rivera to swallow the plastic bag filled with heroin he had on him.

State trooper Dennis Quinn and two investigators with the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, Peter Longo and Thomas DiNunzio, say they repeatedly directed Rivera to spit the bag out.

Maria Ortiz, the mother of Rivera's son, J.R., meanwhile claims that the officers shoved the unresisting suspect to the ground and began kicking and punching him.

Even after the officers handcuffed and restrained Rivera, they continued to kick and punch his head and body, as he choked on the bag, Ortiz alleges.

In addition to continuing their assault and not performing CPR, despite knowing that the bag was lodged in Rivera's throat, suffocating him, the officers called the wrong medical-response team, according to Ortiz's complaint.

Ortiz says the officers summoned basic life support instead of advanced life support, and then failed to divulge that Rivera had a bag in his mouth.

When the team finally pulled the bag out of Rivera's throat, it was too late, Ortiz says.

Rivera was pronounced dead at the hospital from asphyxiation and heroin toxicity.

But the officers claim that the 5-foot-8 Rivera swung and kicked at them, and that they thought he had ingested the bag, not that it was stuck in his throat.

The officers say Rivera was still breathing, though his breath was labored, while in cuffs.

Ortiz and her son sued the city in 2011 and eventually added the aforementioned officers and the State Police as defendants over the course of three amended suits.

Noting that the latter part of the incident was captured on video, U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman recently advanced Ortiz's claims against the officers in their individual capacities, but not the State Police.

"Rivera's physical conduct toward the officers while being apprehended and handcuffed" is still in dispute, as other several other factors, the court found.

Other factors that remain uncertain are "Rivera's condition on the ground," and "the officers' awareness of Rivera's progressive unresponsiveness due to his positioning and swallowing of the plastic bag of drugs," the June 8 ruling states.

The time at which the officers called for medical assistance is contested as well, nor is it certain what the officers told the first responders about the bag of drugs he tried to swallow, according to the ruling.

"Whether the officers acted in an objectively reasonable manner in their use of force on Rivera and in their response to Rivera's serious medical needs - and are therefore entitled to qualified immunity - can only be determined by the court after a jury resolves those seven factual disputes, among other factual issues presented by the parties' evidence," the ruling states.

In a separate decision, Hillman rejected the officers' reliance on the statute of limitations.

John Connell, the attorney for DiNunzio and Longo, noted that trial counsel is not authorized to comment.

Attorneys for Camden declined to comment, while attorneys for the State Police and Quinn have not returned requests for interviews.

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