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Eighth Circuit Affirms Conviction and Sentencing of Former Arkansas Sheriff for Assaulting Detainees

by Harold Hempstead

On February 10, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld the judgment of a district court that convicted the former Sheriff of Arkansas’ Franklin County and sentenced him to four years in federal prison for abusing jail detainees. That leaves Anthony “Tony” Boen, 52, incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Balstrop, Texas, where he is scheduled for release in November 2024.

Boen turned to the Court to appeal a four-year sentence handed down by the federal court for the Western District of Arkansas on March 10, 2022, along with two years of supervised release, after a jury found him guilty of twice depriving detainees at the county jail of their civil rights under the color of law. He was also fined $4,800 and charged a $200 special assessment.

The evidence presented at his August 2021 trial showed that Boen physically assaulted two pretrial detainees in his custody, causing bodily injuries to both.

The first incident happened on November 21, 2018, when Boen slammed detainee Brandon English to the floor and pulled his beard during an interrogation into theft charges, calling him “a piece of shit.” The second incident happened on December 3, 2018, when Boen punched detainee Zachery Greene several times in the head as Green sat on the floor shackled to a bench, in a shower room used as overflow space in the jail. Green, who had been accused of biting another detainee, was still sitting on the floor, still restrained, when Boen returned minutes later and punched him in the head again before spitting on him. [See: PLN, Jan. 2022, p.1.]

Additionally, during the investigation into these incidents, Boen pressured jail guards who witnessed his criminal conduct to lie to federal investigators.

On appeal, Boen argued that it was error not to admit evidence about jail overcrowding that had left Greene restrained to a bench. The Court said any error was harmless, however, since “the jury was properly informed of the reasons behind the shower room and the shackling.” Quoting United States v. Johnson, 860 F.3d 1133 (8th Cir. 2017), the Court explained that reversal was only appropriate “when an improper evidentiary ruling affected the defendant’s substantial rights or had more than a slight influence on the verdict.” But here, the Court added, was an evidentiary ruling that was “‘harmless” because “the same facts [were] presented to the jury through other evidence,” quoting United States v. Slim, 34 F.4th 642 (8th Cir. 2022).

Boen also argued that it was error to admit into evidence copies of the jail’s use-of-force and “inmate rights” policies, calling them “irrelevant” and “confusing” to the jury. Again, though, the Court said reversal was unwarranted because “[i]mproper admission of evidence which is cumulative of matters shown by admissible evidence is harmless error,” quoting United States v. Melton, 870 F.3d 830 (8th Cir. 2017).

In addition, Boen argued that a minor – “de minimus” – injury of the type his victims suffered was insufficient to satisfy the “bodily injury” element of his charge, citing United States v. Brugman, 364 F.3d 613 (5th Cir. 2004). The Court construed this as a challenge to the definition of “bodily injury” given to the jury. But since Boen had failed to object to the instruction at the district court, the Court said it could not review it for abuse of discretion but was limited to an examination for “plain error,” as laid out in United States v. Fast Horse, 747 F.3d 1040 (8th Cir. 2014). It found none, since Brugman was but one case barring relief for de minimus injury, and most other circuits had decided otherwise.

Boen’s challenges to the jury’s verdict were also rejected by the Court, which found “ample evidence to support Boen’s conviction.” It also didn’t shorten his sentence. Granted, the Court said, a recorded call between the Sheriff and Deputy Travis Ball simply “stated facts” – namely, that no one else saw the incidents and so it was their word against the detainees’. But “[w]hile that may be true on paper,” the Court continued, “the district court noted that the context was significantly more obstructionist.”

Thus the disrtict court’s judgment was affirmed. See: United States v. Boen, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 3253 (8th Cir.).

“‘…Boen swore an oath to support the [U.S. and Arkansas constitutions] and…his actions clearly violated not only the civil rights of these individuals but also the trust of the people of Franklin County,” said U.S. Attorney David Clay Fowlkes, who said the case was about “the most personal and basic of civil rights: the rights to be protected and unharmed while in the custody of law enforcement officers.”

Yet the sentence represents a fraction of the 20-year term Boen could have received. U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks, an appointee of former Pres. Barack Obama (D), told the disgraced ex-Sheriff, “I don’t think you’re a bad person ... you’re a person who let a little bit of authority go to your head.”

The FBI investigated the offenses, and the case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon T. Carter and Civil Rights Division Trial Attorney Michael J. Songer. See: United States v. Boen, USDC (W.D. Ark.), Case No. 2:19-cr-20037.

Ball continues to work as a deputy of recently elected Sheriff Johnny Crocker, who assumed office on January 1, 2023. 

Additional sources: AP News, KHBS/KHOG, Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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