Appeal coming in excessive force suit against Gwinnett sheriff's office

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway during a September 2015 press conference.
Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway during a September 2015 press conference.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

After a federal judge ruled Friday that members of his department did not use excessive force while confining inmates in "restraint chairs," Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway issued a thinly veiled dare to the lawyers on the other side of the case.

“It’ll be interesting to see if attorneys Craig Jones and John Cicala are ready to concede that my highly trained, experienced deputies are doing a good job,” the longtime sheriff said in a statement emailed to media members. “Any further expenditure of time or resources pursuing these baseless claims would appear to be a waste for both of them.”

It doesn’t appear, however, that the case will be going away any time soon.

Jones and Cicala filed their original class action lawsuit in 2013, alleging on behalf of four former Gwinnett inmates that members of the sheriff’s office’s “rapid response team” used excessive force while restraining them for hours in chairs that hold their limbs, torso and head firmly in place. The attorneys have conceded their clients were non-compliant before being restrained, but argue that they were “not posing a threat to the safety of themselves or others.”

Conway and the sheriff’s office, meanwhile, have defended the rapid response team, a tactical, SWAT-style unit that operates inside the county jail. In a previous filing, the office called their actions “reasonable under the totality of the circumstances.”

The suit – which names Conway, Col. Don Pinkard and Lt. Col. Carl Sims as defendants – was initially dismissed in United States District Court. Jones and Cicala appealed, only to have the case sent back to district court following a June 22, 2015, decision from the United States Supreme Court (Kingsley v. Hendrickson held that a pretrial detainee alleging excessive force had only to prove that said force was "objectively unreasonable," not that the accused were "subjectively aware" they were acting unreasonably.)

Friday’s summary judgment, then, means that the case is essentially in the same place it was a year ago. Despite Conway’s statements, Jones said Monday that an appeal will be filed -- and that he and Cicala feel like the Supreme Court case will actually make it “easier … to win” and be granted a jury trial.

Said Cicala: "The legal standard that applies to use of force against inmates is what is in question here. The use of the restraint chair is simply one element of equation. Whether these persons have been subjected to excessive force is a question which should be left to a jury to determine."

Deputy Shannon Volkodav, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said Monday that the department has continued the use of restraint chairs throughout the ongoing litigation.

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