Family of Jail Inmate Who Died Saying ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Sues City

The family of a man who died while being strip-searched in a San Bruno jail by San Francisco sheriff’s deputies and saying “I can’t breathe” sued the city on Tuesday, arguing an assault by the deputies caused the man’s death, according to court documents.

Alvin Haynes, 57, died in San Francisco County Jail No. 5 at 1 Moreland Drive at about 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 26, 2015, according to the sheriff’s office.

The complaint filed on behalf of his family says at least three deputies intentionally assaulted Haynes in his cell and he went into cardiac arrest.

The deputies were aware that Haynes had a cardiovascular disease, according to the complaint.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco by the offices of noted civil rights attorney John Burris on behalf of Haynes’ seven brothers and sisters. The complaint contains few details about the confrontation and said the city had denied numerous requests from the family to release the names of the deputies.

Asked to comment on the lawsuit, the sheriff’s office released a letter from San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe dated April 27 that cleared the deputies of criminal wrongdoing. While acknowledging that Haynes died during a struggle with deputies, Wagstaffe’s account contradicted the suit’s allegation that Haynes died in his cell and named the deputies involved.

In the letter to then-Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, Wagstaffe wrote that his office determined the force used by the deputies did not cause Haynes’ death.

The day Haynes died, another inmate handed jail guards a note that said Haynes had been hiding pills in his underwear and later selling them to other inmates. Based on the note, deputies pulled Haynes out of class to strip search him, Wagstaffe wrote.

The two deputies searching him, identified in Wagstaffe’s letter as deputies Chan and Antonio, brought Haynes into another room and ordered him to remove his clothes. But when told to remove his underwear, he became nervous and was “fidgeting,” Wagstaffe wrote.

He crouched and appeared to be holding something in his fist.

The two deputies grabbed his arms and Haynes resisted, and the three men fell to the floor in the struggle. Haynes, who outweighed both deputies, was dragging Chan as he tried to move his left hand toward his mouth, according to Wagstaffe.

Several other deputies responded to assist them, holding his head and legs, but no deputies were on top of Haynes and did not use a chokehold or carotid restraint, Wagstaffe wrote.

“I can’t breathe,” he called out during the struggle, but the deputies noticed no other signs of distress and were not alarmed as it’s “common for inmates to falsely claim inability to breathe while in physical contact with deputies,” Wagstaffe wrote.

But once he was in leg cuffs three to four minutes later and the deputies rolled Haynes over they found his eyes were half-closed and he didn’t respond to questions, though at that point he was still breathing.

The deputies called medical staff, took Haynes’ handcuffs off and covered him up because he was still naked. The medical staff performed CPR but he died there, according to Wagstaffe.

Haynes was in custody because of a probation violation for possession of a controlled substance, according to the sheriff’s office. He had previously been arrested for burglary, receiving or buying stolen property, possession of burglary tools and resisting or delaying arrest.

The family — Rochelle Larry, Al White, Robert Jackson, Donnie Bell, John Ralph Bell, Effie Haynes and Yvonne Fletcher — are seeking unspecified damages for allegations including unreasonable search and seizure for the deputies entering Haynes cell, conspiracy to violate his civil rights, deprivation of familial relationship and wrongful death.

Scott Morris, Bay City News

Please make sure your comment adheres to our comment policy. If it doesn't, it may be deleted. Repeat violations may cause us to revoke your commenting privileges. No one wants that!