LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. -
The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled a jury should decide whether Gwinnett County jailers used excessive force when they put prisoners in a restraint chair.
The FOX 5 I-Team first aired controversial videos three years ago showing prisoners tackled and strapped into the restraint chairs, even though some were calm and compliant. The case was originally dismissed by a federal judge last year. The latest decision sends it back to that same judge.
Jail policy forbids the chairs be used for punishment. Instead, they're supposed to protect the inmate from self-harm, jailers from dangerous prisoners and taxpayers from expensive medical care.
Our 2013 investigation reviewed 75 Gwinnett jail videos. Several showed inmates fighting efforts to put on a suicide gown or laying down in their own urine, prisoners clearly refusing to comply with jailers' directions.
But we also found multiple cases just like Justin Shuford, where the prisoner seemed cooperative once they saw the restraint chair outside their cell, but still wound up strapped in for hours.
"It wasn't necessary," Shuford told us back then. "I was calm. I wasn't being disruptive to any of the guards and like that."
He had been brought to jail on a probation violation stemming from a drunk driving arrest. He said he struck the cell door because he wanted to get the jailer's attention regarding a sandwich.
On the video obtained by the FOX 5 I-Team, Shuford is seen quietly watching the jail's Rapid Response Team gear up and position the restraint chair outside his cell. Eight minutes later they rush inside, tackling Shuford and slamming him into the chair. As with all the videos, a supervisor reviewed the team's actions and found they met policy standards.
"Is it fair to expect the sheriff's deputies to get all geared up for some bad behavior and then tell them to stand down when the behavior suddenly stops?" I asked the attorneys who filed the civil rights lawsuit.
"It's not even a question of is it fair," responded John Cicala. "That's what the law is."
"The only thing we have to prove is it's unreasonable," reminded attorney Craig Jones. "And I'm sure the viewers that have watched these videos, you'll have some that say it's reasonable. Some that say it's not. And that's why we have juries."
The U.S.. Court of Appeals ruled the jail's use of force "was objectively unreasonable" and said a jury should decide the issue. Attorneys Cicala and Jones will now ask for class action status, allowing them to include perhaps another one hundred clients. They want monetary damages and a court order limiting future restraint chair use.
"They're still human beings," Cicala stressed. "They deserve to be treated like human beings."
Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway had no comment on the court decision to let this lawsuit move forward. In fact, they've only made one change here to their restraint chair policy since 2013. They now try to video the bad behavior even earlier in an attempt to better justify the need for such force.
The sheriff's policy has always been to video each incident involving the jail's Rapid Response Team in order to protect staff from frivolous lawsuits.
Ironic now that those same videos are at the heart of this case.
"Without these videos, would you have a case?" I asked.
"Not a case we'd be interested in," admitted attorney Jones. "But when you've got the videos we don't care what our client said happened. We don't care what the officer said happened. The camera sees all."