WEST PALM BEACH – An appeals court has reversed its earlier ruling dismissing a lawsuit filed against the Broward Sheriff’s Office over the 2001 death of a man who died as a result of being beaten and hog-tied by county paramedics and Broward sheriff’s deputies.
“The BSO did not suspect any criminal activity. They knew that the decedent had been in a vehicle accident. Despite this, they threw him to the ground, lay on top of him, and hogtied him,” Judge Martha C. Warner wrote for the majority in the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s 13-page ruling.
“Such use of force against a person who has committed no crime and is not a danger to others has been established in the foregoing case as excessive.”
“The trial court erred in granting summary judgment as a matter of law on the qualified immunity of officers,” the ruling further states.
The case involves Oral Brown, a 37-year-old businessman who suffered a seizure while driving on Oct. 15, 2001 in Fort Lauderdale. His SUV crashed through a fence and landed upside down, trapping him in the vehicle.
Emergency workers who freed Brown from the wreckage said he became combative, forcing them to subdue and restrain him by hog-tying.
Witnesses have disputed that claim, saying Brown was beaten, placed in a chokehold and wrestled to the ground without cause.
Brown was then strapped face down on a stretcher and taken to a hospital emergency room where staff discovered he was not breathing, did not have a pulse and was covered in his own fluids. They argued with deputies, who at first refused to untie him. Attempts to revive Brown were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead. Based on what had taken place, hospital staff took the unusual step of calling police and a homicide investigation was opened.
An autopsy determined Brown suffocated as a result of being hog-tied, but concluded his death was accidental. A homicide investigation and grand jury reached the same conclusion.
Brown’s widow sued the Broward Sheriff’s Office, Broward County, the Swap Shop Flea Market where the accident occurred and the individual deputies and paramedics involved in the death of her husband.
Broward Circuit Court Judge Patti Englander Henning dismissed the civil case saying emergency personnel had “absolute immunity.” Her ruling was overturned on appeal and she later recused herself from the case due to an undisclosed conflict. The new judge, John Bowman, also dismissed the case, ruling that emergency personnel had “qualified immunity.”
The cases was successfully appealed, and the ruling means the case against the Broward Sheriff’s Office and numerous deputies will proceed, but the county and its firefighters and paramedics are dropped from the case.
“I’m pleased with the ruling, but have concerns,” said Michael Winer, the attorney representing Brown’s widow in the case. “The appellate court, in a rare move, withdrew its initial opinion and substituted it with another opinion, so a jury can consider the testimony of eyewitnesses who say the police, firefighters, and paramedics kicked, beat, choked and hogtied Mr. Brown while he was having a seizure.”
The court did rule that Broward County paramedics, who at the time were not a part of the sheriff’s office, had qualified immunity, and dismissed the county from the case.
“In the instant case, the decedent was confused, disoriented and uncommunicative when he was approached by BCFR [Broward County Fire Rescue] personnel. By the time they began their treatment of him, he was already immobilized by the BSO deputies. Therefore, the show of force had already taken place,” reads a section of the ruling.
Winer said the facts of the case “do not support those conclusions.”
According to testimony given in depositions and a BSO homicide investigation, county personnel did assist in restraining and hog-tying Brown, and even provided the straps used to tie him up.
The civil rights organization People for Equal Rights and Justice Inc. (PFERJ) and its president, the Rev. Dennis Grant, requested that Gov. Rick Scott appoint a special prosecutor to reopen the criminal investigation into Brown’s death.
Scott is reviewing the matter and has yet to reach a decision.
An ongoing series of investigative reports by the South Florida Times uncovered potential conflicts of interest, eyewitnesses who contradict official versions of what occurred but were never called to testify, and other unexplained occurrences:
• Even though Englander Henning had also presided over the grand jury proceedings, she never revealed the potential conflict of interest in the civil case which she dismissed.
• She also had a sister and brother-in-law who worked for the Broward Sheriff’s Office. The brother-in-law also worked for two security firms owned by then Sheriff Ken Jenne, but she never disclosed the relationships.
• A critical report by the Broward County Fire Rescue Division concluded that several mistakes were made by paramedics in their treatment of Brown. That report was never presented to prosecutors or the grand jury.
• The Broward Sheriff’s Office homicide investigation referred to the medical examiner’s autopsy report several times and listed the pathologist by her maiden name. She actually is the wife of the detective who supervised and conducted the homicide investigation — a fact that was not disclosed in any of the reports or to the grand jury.
• Three witnesses have said they saw Brown having convulsions while driving alongside them and they were on the phone with a 911 operator as his SUV crashed and flipped over. They stopped to help him. They have told the South Florida Times that Brown was disoriented, but not combative, as the homicide report claims. Those witnesses also said Brown was kicked, choked and beaten by emergency personnel after he was unable to follow their instructions.
They, and other witnesses, say they were unaware of the homicide investigation and were never contacted to testify before the grand jury.
Local prosecutors have expressed a willingness to review some aspects of the case, but have not responded to follow-up questions.
Now, the South Florida Times has identified other witnesses, who are also disputing the accounts made in the homicide investigation, but were never called to testify before the grand jury.
*Pictured above is Court of Appeal Judge Martha C. Warner, left, and the late Oral Brown, right.
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