Attorneys for Issiah Downes, who died at the San Francisco County Jail on Sept. 7, 2009, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on Friday.
The 31-year-old Downes, who was 6 feet 1 inch tall and 300 pounds, died of “respiratory arrest during prone restraint” coupled with “morbid obesity,” according to a medical examiner’s report issued late last month.
The report concluded the manner of death was homicide, but emphasized that it was not making any criminal determination. Police have said there is an ongoing investigation.
Downes’ attorney Geri Green, who filed the suit on behalf of Downes’ mother, Esther Downes, alleged that deputies used excessive force and “illegal and unconstitutional” restraint procedures.
Sheriff Michael Hennessey, several jail deputies, and several supervisors are named in the lawsuit.
Downes, who Green said suffered from schizophrenia, had become upset about the televisions in his jail unit being turned off.
According to the sheriff’s department, Downes became disruptive and resisted efforts to move him to a safety cell.
Downes was placed on the ground while handcuffed and went limp, and paramedics were unable to revive him.
Green said that while Downes was lying face down, deputies placed their weight on his back and neck, causing him to asphyxiate.
The sheriff’s department has said that Downes had a history of violent behavior against others and himself, and that the department’s procedures were properly followed.
Green alleged that the jail has no written policies on its restraint practices and that the procedures used were inherently dangerous.
In addition to monetary damages, the lawsuit is seeking an order that the sheriff’s department change its policies on the handling and restraint of prisoners.
Ari Burack, Bay City News