Judge ruled the deputies had no probable cause to arrest the 49-year-old
The Fremont County Sheriff’s Office will pay $3.6 million to a grandmother they arrested, strapped into a restraint chair and stunned twice with a Taser — all while she was naked and had committed no crime.
A jury awarded the money to the woman, Carolyn O’Neal, on Wednesday after she sued the sheriff’s office and the deputies over the 2014 incident. The jury found that the deputies violated O’Neal’s right to privacy, used excessive force and retaliated against her, according to a verdict form provided to The Denver Post by O’Neal’s attorney.
The verdict comes after the Fremont sheriff’s office has faced a slew of lawsuits over deputy brutality and after a sheriff resigned because of misconduct allegations among the staff.
“This jury sent them the loudest, clearest message,” said David Lane, the Denver civil rights attorney who represented O’Neal. “We the people are not going to put up with constitutional violations from law enforcement officers.”
Deputies responded on May 5, 2014, to the Cañon City sober living facility where O’Neal was staying for a welfare check after staff there reported O’Neal might hurt herself, according to the lawsuit. O’Neal was distraught because her mother was dying.
Three deputies arrived and knocked on O’Neal’s door, but she told them to leave because she was naked and about to take a bath. The deputies then used a key to open her door and walk in anyway.
O’Neal yelled at them to leave her room because she was naked and said she had no intent to hurt herself. Instead, the deputies — all men — threw the 123-pound woman onto the bed, held her down and handcuffed her, according to the lawsuit. They covered her in a blanket, walked her outside in broad daylight and placed her in a squad car when she refused to talk to them.
When O’Neal arrived at the jail, staff tackled her to the ground before strapping her into a chair that secured her limbs, shoulders and waist and placed a spit mask over her face. O’Neal was covered only by a smock that repeatedly slid down, exposing her, the lawsuit stated.
Deputies briefly released her legs from their restraints, but later decided to strap them back in. When O’Neal resisted, the deputies used a pressure point technique to make her submit. When that failed, a deputy used a Taser on her twice, leaving burn marks on her leg.
O’Neal spent four hours in the chair before she was placed in a cell. She didn’t receive a jail uniform until 12 hours after she was arrested.Prosecutors charged O’Neal with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct in connection to the ordeal. A judge later dismissed the charges and found the deputies had no reason to arrest her in the first place.
The lawsuit alleged that the deputies arrested O’Neal as retribution for her protests about being arrested. It also alleged that the sheriff’s office failed to train the deputies and jail staff on how to help people with mental health problems as well as “created, fostered, maintained and tolerated an environment and culture of law enforcement brutality and deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of its citizens and residents.”
None of the deputies involved in the incident had been disciplined for their actions, Lane said.
“The whole concept of our case is when the guys with the guns no longer buy into the Constitution, our country is doomed,” Lane said.
The sheriff’s office did not immediately return a call for comment Wednesday.
The Fremont County Sheriff’s Office has faced multiple lawsuits in recent years regarding the treatment of detainees. A former inmate sued in November alleging that a deputy told him he should kill himself. The family of a man who died in the jail sued the county and the company that provides medical care in the facility alleging the man was abused there.
Jim Beicker, the sheriff at the time of O’Neal’s arrest, resigned in July after a slew of his staff was put on leave for alleged misconduct and a failed effort to recall him.