Federal lawsuit filed over inmate’s death

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A lawsuit filed Wednesday in Texarkana seeks damages for the family of a 35-year-old man who died while in custody at the Bi-State Justice Center jail in 2015.

The family of Michael Todd Sabbie filed a complaint Wednesday in the Texarkana Division of the Eastern District of Texas against the private company which manages the jail, Southwestern Correctional doing business as LaSalle Corrections; Bowie County, Texas; City of Texarkana, Ark; and members of LaSalle’s medical and correctional staff accused of ignoring Sabbie’s failing health and of using excessive force during the hours before his death.

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Licensed vocational nurses Tiffany Venable and M. Flint and medical doctor Gregory Montoya and correctional officers Clint Brown, Nathaniel Johnson, Brian Jones, Robert Derrick, Daniel Hopkins, Stuart Boozer, Andrew Lomax, Shawn Palmer and Simone Nash are accused of contributing to Sabbie’s death.

Sabbie was arrested by Texarkana, Ark., Police Department on a misdemeanor charge following a domestic disturbance July 19, 2015. When Sabbie entered the jail he informed medical staff he suffered from heart disease, asthma, hypertension, diabetes and other medical conditions for which he takes medication. During his approximately three-day stay in the jail, Sabbie was not given any medication and medical staff failed to check his blood pressure or blood sugar level at all despite his repeated complaints of difficulty breathing.

The complaint alleges Sabbie collapsed while in the jail at least twice and should have been taken to a hospital. The complaint alleges staff accused Sabbie of faking his symptoms after nursing staff failed to adequately assess his condition.

During a court appearance July 21, Sabbie allegedly told the judge he needed to go to a hospital and complained of spitting up blood, according to the complaint. On the way back to his cell following court, stationary cameras mounted in the jail captured a confrontation between Sabbie and correctional officer Clint Brown. Sabbie, “stops and leans against a wall. He then puts both hands on his knees in a ‘tripod’ position and is plainly struggling to catch his breath,” the complaint states.

In the video which has no sound, Sabbie is approached by Brown and the two exchange words. The officer grabs Sabbie and throws him to the ground. Once on the floor with Brown, a number of other officers pile on top of Sabbie and an officer with a handheld video camera with audio begins filming.

“Mr. Sabbie can be heard in the handheld video camera footage repeatedly pleading, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,’ underneath the pile of officers, while also making gasping sounds consistent with respiratory distress,” the complaint states. “While Mr. Sabbie was lying in a prone position, fully controlled with multiple officers on top of him–struggling to breathe and repeatedly communicating his respiratory distress–a Bi-State Jail lieutenant (Johnson) sprayed Mr. Sabbie directly in the face with his can of OC (pepper) spray.”

Sabbie continues to state, “I can’t breathe,” as officers take Sabbie to the nurse’s station where LVN Tiffany Venable allegedly spends less than a minute checking Sabbie over in an exam the complaint describes as “grossly substandard.” The officers then escort Sabbie to a shower, “purportedly to decontaminate the pepper spray from his face and body.”

Sabbie repeatedly tells the officers he can’t breathe as he is sprayed in the face with “hot water” and ordered to “stay up,” as he struggles to stand.

“When he leaned against a wall, in an apparent effort to hold himself up, defendant Johnson, who previously pepper sprayed him, ordered him to stop doing so and threatened that if he did not comply, ‘a chemical agent would be administered again,'” the complaint states. “This threat is outrageous, as Mr. Sabbie was not doing anything that would come close to justifying the use of additional pepper spray or even the threat of it.”

Sabbie appears to collapse in the shower as the officers and Venable watch.

“One of them announced, oddly, that ‘the offender is perfectly sitting down,’ when Mr. Sabbie was clearly not sitting–he was lying motionless on the shower floor, most likely unconscious,” the complaint states. “Mr. Sabbie’s collapse should have triggered the defendant-officers to call for an all-out emergency medical response. Yet, no one radioed for emergency medical assistance, and defendant-nurse Venable did nothing.”

The complaint alleges the hot water sprayed on Sabbie in the shower “likely worsened” the effects of the pepper spray. According to the complaint, Sabbie’s face should have been cleaned with cold water and soap and he should have been changed into clean, dry clothing before being returned to his cell. Instead, the officers dragged Sabbie back to his cell.

“As the defendant-officers dragged Mr. Sabbie back to his cell–in soaking wet, pepper-spray-contaminated clothing, with his pants pulled down below his waist and his naked buttocks exposed–Mr. Sabbie’s labored breathing, gasping and abnormally high respiration rate continued,” the complaint states. “He repeatedly bent forward at the waist, trying to catch his breath, and made sounds consistent with respiratory distress.”

Sabbie continued complain of his inability to breathe as the officers removed cuffs from his hands.

“This is at least the 19th time that Mr. Sabbie can be heard saying, ‘I can’t breathe,’ on the incorporated handheld video footage,” the complaint states. “In addition to the defendant officers, Nurse Venable was present. Dr. Montoya was reportedly present as well.”

About an hour-and-a-half later, three officers return to Sabbie’s cell where he is lying motionless on his back with his pants pulled down. After taking photos of Sabbie, the officers leave.

The complaint alleges that Sabbie should have been checked on every 30 minutes according to standard jail protocols.

“Defendant-officer Simone Nash documented that she conducted the requisite 30-minute checks throughout her 12-hour night shift. However, she did not actually do the mandatory checks. Instead she simply fabricated documentation that she did them,” the complaint states.

On the morning of July 22, shortly after 6 a.m., officers opened Sabbie’s cell, “because he had ‘refused’ orders to pull his pants up.”

“Mr. Sabbie was dead. His body was stiff and cold to the touch,” the complaint states. “It is not yet known how long Mr. Sabbie lay dead while jail staff ignored him.”

The suit accuses LaSalle of violating Sabbie’s rights to adequate medical care and to be free from the use of excessive force. The complaint asks for compensatory damages for Sabbie’s mental and physical pain and suffering and loss of life and for his family’s losses as well as punitive damages.

Seattle, Wash., attorneys Erik Heipt and Ed Budge filed the suit Wednesday. The members of Sabbie’s family listed as plaintiffs include his wife Teresa Sabbie and their three children; Shankye Norton, as parent and natural guardian of one of Sabbie’s four children; and Sabbie’s siblings, Kimberly Williams, Marcus Sabbie and Charlisa Crump. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Robert Schroeder III.

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