No Immunity for Cop’s Chokehold Killing

     (CN) – A police officer who put a detainee in a chokehold until he died does not qualify for immunity and neither do two others accused of conspiring to cover up the killing, the Sixth Circuit ruled.
     In 2004, 25-year-old Carlton Benton was a pretrial detainee at Lucas County jail in Toledo, Ohio. He was taken to the hospital that May because he was suffering from seizures, but resisted officers when they disconnected him from medical equipment to take him back to jail. Officers sprayed him with mace and repeatedly struck his upper body until he was completely subdued, according to court records.
     Afterwards, Benton made no further efforts to resist the officers. But officer Jay Schmeltz was “frustrated, agitated, and angry” as a result of the incident at the hospital, Benton’s family claims in a lawsuit, motivating Schmeltz to shove Benton from behind while leading him back to his cell.
     Benton could not break his fall due to his shackles, and struck his head on the cement wall. Sgt. John Gray and other officers witnessed this event.
     Schmeltz then pulled Benton off the floor and took him to his cell, where he and Gray attempted to remove the detainee’s restraints.
     Benton began to “squirm around,” making the officers’ job more difficult. His family says that his struggling did not pose a threat to the officers.
     Nevertheless, Gray allegedly grabbed Benton from behind and placed him in a chokehold. Gray did not release the chokehold until Benton went limp and fell unconscious, even though another officer warned him to let go, saying he was maintaining the chokehold for too long.
     The officers then removed the restraints and left the cell, without proving him any medical attention. Another deputy found Benton dead approximately 10 minutes later.
     The county coroner’s office originally ruled out foul play in Benton’s death, but revised its assessment five years later when the FBI launched an investigation. In 2010, the coroner found Benton’s death was a homicide by asphyxia.
     During the FBI investigation, Schmeltz and Sheriff James Telb both denied seeing Gray apply a chokehold on Benton, and Gray falsely stated that he saw Benton breathing after he fell unconscious, according to the ruling.
     A jury found the two officers guilty of falsifying records related to Benton’s death. Gray was sentenced to three years in prison, while Schmeltz was sentenced to one year and a day.
     Benton’s family also filed a wrongful death lawsuit, and a Northern Ohio district court denied immunity for Schmeltz, Gray and Telb.
     The Cincinnati-based appeals court affirmed Friday that neither officer nor Telb is entitled to immunity for their role in Benton’s death.
     “Taking into account all of the circumstances of that day, including the legitimate interests of law enforcement in preserving order and discipline, the allegations that Schmeltz and Gray inflicted gratuitous pain on Benton while he was handcuffed, culminating in his death, establish valid claims that both officers violated Benton’s Fourteenth Amendment rights,” Judge Jane Stranch wrote for a three-member panel.
     Both men were aware that their actions were illegal at the time, and attempted to cover up the incident by filing false reports and lying to federal investigators, the judge found.
     Benton’s family has also shown that Telb “‘at least implicitly authorized approved or knowingly acquiesced in the unconstitutional conduct of the offending subordinate’ when he helped Schmeltz and Gray to cover up their unconstitutional actions,” Stranch wrote, which she said leaves the sheriff potentially liable for his failure to train and supervise his officers.

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