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$750,000 Settlement in South Dakota Pretrial Detainee’s Overdose Death

by David M. Reutter

A $750,000 settlement was reached in the methamphetamine overdose death of a female South Dakota pretrial detainee. The lawsuit brought claims against two separate county jails, state troopers, and guards at the jails.

Sarah Lee Circle Bear, 24, was arrested on July 3, 2016, after a traffic stop that resulted in her boyfriend exiting the vehicle at gun point. Sarah told officers that her boyfriend had consumed large amounts of methamphetamine during the pursuit.

Sarah was booked into the Roberts County Jail, but she was never medically examined or assessed to determine if she was having a possible drug overdose. After she was placed in a cell at around 10 a.m., she is seen on video for the next few hours “visibly upset, rocking back and forth, shaking her head and crying.” She also hunched over grabbing her stomach like she was in pain. Her condition continued to deteriorate and she admitted to using methamphetamine the day before.

She was transported to the Brown County Jail at 9:06 p.m. During the transport, she was ill. Upon arrival at the jail, she against. was not examined by medical personnel. She was placed in a cell with other women, but she was moved into a holding cell after making threats of killing herself or someone else. The diagnostic impression was “Possible substance use withdrawal.” Still, no medical care was provided.

When she asked for help a few hours later when returned to her cellblock, a guard responded, “Oh Sarah, you always act like this when you come to jail. Don’t press the button again if it’s not an emergency.”

The next morning at 8:00 a.m., Sarah pressed the emergency button and said her heart hurt and was beating fast. A guard again said “you always act like this.” Sarah returned to her cell. A half hour later, Sarah was hanging onto a phone trying to hold herself up. She had urinated on herself, she was sweating excessively, and her hair was wet. Another detainee asked for help.

Guards Jennifer White and Nicole Leslie arrived and asked, “Why do you always do this every time you come to jail?” before entering the cell. It was obvious something was wrong, and the two guards helped Sarah to her feet and took into the hallway. She collapsed when she got to the second floor and was put in a cell despite the fact she had very low blood pressure and an elevated pulse rate.

By 10:37 a.m., Sarah was not breathing and EMS was called. They arrived two minutes later, but it was too late. Sarah had been left to die in her cell, and that is exactly what occurred. She was pronounced dead upon arrival at a hospital.

Represented by Aberdeen attorney Chad Locken and Albuquerque, New Mexico, attorney Frances C. Carpenter, Sarah’s estate sued in 2018. The defendants agreed to the $750,000 settlement in April 2020. $374,702.22 of the settlement went towards attorney fees and $375,297.78 was placed in annuity accounts to make payments to Sarah’s two minor children. See: Circle Bear v. Milbrandt, U.S.D.C., D. South Dakota, Case No. 1:18-cv-1014. 

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Related legal case

Circle Bear v. Milbrandt