Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Summary Judgment Denied in California Jail Excessive Force Death; $8.3 Million Settlement Plus Injunctive Relief

Summary Judgment Denied in California Jail Excessive Force Death; $8.3 Million Settlement Plus Injunctive Relief

by Mark Wilson

In April 2014, a California federal district court denied summary judgment to jail guards and medical staff in a case involving the death of a detainee caused by Tasing and severe beating while the detainee was in Delirium Tremens as a result of incompetent medical care. The case went to trial in February 2015, resulting in an $8.3 million settlement and unprecedented injunctive relief.

One day before his fiftieth birthday, on August 13, 2010, Martin Harrison was booked into jail in Alameda County on a failure to appear warrant after he was arrested for jaywalking. The jail contracted with Corizon Health, Inc. (formerly Prison Health Services) to provide medical care to prisoners.

Zelda Sancho, a Licensed Vocational Nurse employed by Corizon, performed Harrison’s medical intake assessment. Harrison informed Sancho he drank every day, his last drink was that day and he had a history of alcohol withdrawal. Harrison “smelled of alcohol and his face was ‘maybe red, but not puffy,’” yet Sancho failed to note those facts on the screening form. Sancho claimed Harrison reported drinking two beers every day, but Sancho again “forgot to record it on the form.” In short, the form did “not state that Harrison smelled of alcohol, what type of alcohol Harrison drank, the amount of daily consumption, the time or amount of Harrison’s last drink, or how many years Harrison had been drinking.”

Sancho did note that Harrison had a “history of alcohol withdrawal.” She also “wrote ‘CIWA,’ which stands for ‘Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment,’ a protocol used to evaluate and treat those at risk for severe alcohol withdrawal.” However, both entries were crossed out with the notation “error.”

Forensic document examiner Patricia Fisher “determined that the ‘cross-out was written at a later time and the word “error” was not written simultaneously with the paper in the same position as the “CIWA” letters.’” Sancho claimed she had moved the form around as she wrote.

In any event, the alterations violated Corizon’s policy, “which requires that an ‘error’ notation be accompanied by an explanation in the margin.” Such a “strike-out also constitutes impermissible ‘mutilation’ of the medical record that contravenes Corizon policy and training,” according to the company.

“Sancho spent ‘three to 10 minutes, or less than 10 minutes’ with Harrison” before concluding that he had “no medical problems” and was not at risk for alcohol withdrawal. He was then transported to the Santa Rita Jail.

At 6 p.m. on August 15, 2010, Harrison asked guard Matthew Ahlf for medication, but none had been prescribed. He again requested medication at 3:30 a.m. on August 16. A short time later Harrison was moved to isolation due to “bizarre behavior, disorientation to time and place, and incoherent mumbling.”

Around 6:50 p.m. on August 16, 2010, “Ahlf observed Harrison yelling and screaming, claiming someone was pointing a gun at him and shooting him.” Harrison also “had a mattress over his head, the cell was flooded, and there were broken shards of food tray on the floor.”

Ahlf decided to move Harrison to a different cell without backup from other staff. He did not handcuff him through the cell door cuff port, “because he did not consider Harrison a threat.” Yet Ahlf opened the cell door while holding handcuffs in one hand and his Taser in the other, “just in case something were to happen.”

As Ahlf applied one handcuff, “Harrison turned his head and gave him ‘an unsettling, just blank stare.’” Ahlf claimed that he “put away the handcuffs and ‘gently nudged’ Harrison back into his cell.” Harrison took a few steps forward and Ahlf deployed his Taser. Harrison fell and then got back up, and Ahlf again used his Taser in “dart mode.”

Harrison allegedly stood up again and charged Ahlf, but slipped on the water in his cell and slid on his back. Ahlf fell too, but “got on top of Harrison and a struggle ensued.”

Ahlf punched the 140-pound Harrison in the head and back and delivered knee strikes to his torso while he was on top of Harrison, who was prone on the floor. Ahlf later admitted that “Harrison never attempted to punch, kick, or strike” him.

At least nine more guards quickly joined the melee, repeatedly beating and Tasing Harrison. “What happened next is a mass of contradictory testimony,” the district court observed, due in part to the guards’ “code of silence.”

Harrison was secured in chains, leg irons and a spit mask, and Ahlf “took a close-up photograph” of him. “I got a great photo of him ... with his spit mask on,” Ahlf told Sergeant Dudek. “I didn’t want to know what he meant by that” because “it just leaves too many doors open,” said Dudek. “Was it a great photo because the light was good? Was it a great photo for inappropriate purposes? I didn’t want to know.”

At about 7:13 p.m., Harrison became unresponsive and was transported to a local hospital when nurses could not detect his heartbeat. He remained at the hospital until he died two days later on August 18, 2010. An autopsy determined Harrison’s death was caused by “Anoxic Encephalopathy due to cardiac arrest following excessive physical exertion, multiple blunt injuries and Tasering.”

On September 15, 2010, Corizon terminated Nurse Sancho for “gross negligence or incompetence” and “failure to follow procedure + policy” related to Harrison’s intake screening. Prior to Harrison’s death, Sancho had taken and failed the exam to become a Registered Nurse three times. Ahlf merely “had a lapse in judgment,” according to jail supervisors; the deputies involved in the incident were cleared of wrongdoing following an internal investigation.

Harrison’s minor son, M.H., filed a federal lawsuit on July 10, 2011 that alleged excessive force, deliberate indifference, negligence and other claims. Harrison’s four adult children later joined the suit, represented by Haddad & Sherwin LLP. M.H. settled his claims in October 2013 for $1 million, while the claims of the other plaintiffs proceeded.

On April 7, 2014, the district court denied summary judgment to the defendants on claims of deliberate indifference to Harrison’s risk of alcohol detoxification and excessive force, finding that “many of the facts in this case are disputed by the parties.” Other claims, including the jail guards’ deliberate indifference to Harrison’s serious medical needs and negligence claims against Alameda County and Corizon, were dismissed. Municipal liability claims against the county and Corizon, as well as punitive damages claims against Corizon and the individual defendants, were allowed to go forward.

The case went to a jury trial on February 2, 2015, but the parties settled before a verdict was reached. Corizon and Alameda County agreed to split a payment of $8.3 million in damages; further, Corizon agreed to have Registered Nurses perform intake medical assessments, rather than Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs), at all jails the company contracts with in California – which includes facilities in Alameda County, Santa Barbara County, Tulare County and Fresno County. Corizon allegedly used LVNs because they could be paid less, which increased the company’s profits.

“After jail deputies beat and Tased their father to death, Martin Harrison’s children beat them in court to win the largest wrongful death settlement in a civil rights case in California history,” said Michael Haddad, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “It was very important for us to stop Corizon from endangering jail inmates by staffing California jails with unqualified nurses.”

Additionally, Alameda County will provide health-related training to its jail guards, including training in recognizing the symptoms of alcohol or drug withdrawal. The settlement will be monitored by the federal district court for four years, with an extension of up to three years if the defendants are not in compliance.

“My father, he was a nice guy,” said Martin Harrison, Jr. “He wasn’t a bad person, you know? He made one mistake and it cost him his life.”

In addition to Haddad, the plaintiffs were represented by Julia Sherwin; another attorney, Rick Friedman, joined the case as co-counsel for the trial. The settlement was approved by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors on February 10, 2015. See: M.H. v. County of Alameda, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:11-cv-02868-JST; 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS. 48592.


Additional sources:,,

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

M.H. v. County of Alameda