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$2.57 Million Settlement for Hogtying Death in NC Police Custody

by Eike Blohm, MD

On October 20, 2022, a federalcourt in North Carolina approved a settlement obligating the City of Greensboro to pay $2.57 million for the wrongful death of a mentally ill man, after city cops detained and hogtied him in September 2018.

Most people were enjoying the late-summer night air and the North Carolina Folk Festival on the downtown streets on September 8, 2018. But Marcus Deon Smith, a 38-year-old with a history of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and substance abuse, was in the midst of a mental health crisis. He would be dead within the hour.

Death came dressed in the uniforms of Greensboro Police officers, who found him pacing back and forth, running in circles and frantically waving his arms. While Smith was clearly agitated, he was neither aggressive nor posed a threat to himself or others. In fact, he begged for help and asked to be taken to a hospital.

Waiting on an ambulance, the cops put Smith in the back of a police cruiser with promises he’d be driven to a hospital. As time went on and the vehicle didn’t move, Smith began to panic. In the claustrophobic confines, he desperately banged his hand against the window to get the officers’ attention.

That was when they decided to “hobble” him. Extracting Smith from the cruiser, they wrestled him to the ground and applied the Hobble Restraint System manufactured by RIPP Restraints International in Florida. Despite his pleas — “please don’t do that”; “I’m not resisting” — Smith was soon prone on the ground, hands cuffed behind his back, with his ankles tied to wrists. The officers tightened the restraint so that Smith’s back was arched and neither his knees nor shoulders touched the pavement. He was hogtied.

All muscle activity, especially isometric contractions against restraints, generates carbon dioxide (CO2) which must be exhaled. It is the reason we get out of breath during exercise. But when we are hobbled as Smith was, the chest and lungs cannot expand sufficiently to remove the excess CO2. The arms, cuffed behind the back, restrict how much the chest can expand to the sides. The ground prevents expansion to the front. Once the body is arched, the main respiratory muscle (the diaphragm) can no longer pull the lungs open toward the stomach. The CO2 not exhaled dissolves in the blood as carbonic acid, the same as the bubbles in a carbonated beverage. The acid lowers the pH of the blood, ultimately causing the heart to fail.

Shortly after being hogtied, Smith was in obvious respiratory distress, wheezing and coughing for air. He soon became unresponsive. The officers noticed but did not act. Even after his breathing completely stopped, it took another two minutes before they attempted resuscitation, which was unsuccessful. The Chief Medical Examiner later ruled the death a homicide. But none of the officers involved was criminally charged.

On behalf of themselves and his estate, Smith’s parents filed suit in federal court for the Middle District of North Carolina under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., accusing the city, Guilford County, as well as the police officers and paramedics involved of Smith’s wrongful death.

On March 25, 2020, the Court dismissed the ADA claim and all claims against Guilford County, as well as an alleged Fourth Amendment violation by paramedics. But a similar claim against the city and its officers survived, as did a Fourteenth Amendment due-process claim against all remaining defendants and a Fourteenth Amendment excessive-force claim against the city and its police officers. See: Smith v. City of Greensboro, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53132 (M.D.N.C.).

Almost a year later, claims made by Plaintiffs for themselves were dismissed on March 15, 2021, leaving only their claims on behalf of their son’s estate. See: Smith v. City of Greensboro, U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47805 (M.D.N.C.).

On October 18, 2021, a magistrate judge recommended denying motions by Plaintiffs to amend the complaint and reopen discovery or unseal exhibits that portrayed the application of the RIPP Hobble Restraint System during other police encounters. Also denied was a motion by Defendants to exclude a toxicologist’s rebuttal to their expert report. The Court then adopted those recommendations on December 6, 2021. See: Smith v. City of Greensboro, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 233862 (M.D.N.C.); and 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 232657 (M.D.N.C.).

That got the parties into mediation, resulting in the settlement. Of the total amount, the City of Greensboro paid $2.22 million, and Guilford County paid $350,000. The funds will go to Smith’s three children, each receiving $450,000, with the remaining $1.22 million paid to the estate and legal fees, less $10,000 reserved for a commemorative plaque at the shelter that Smith frequented. Plaintiffs were represented by Greensboro attorney Graham Eugene Holt, with Ben H. Elson and other attorneys from People’s Law Office in Chicago. See: Smith v. City of Greensboro, USDC (M.D.N.C.), Case No. 1:19-cv-00386.  

Additional source: WUNC

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