$20M Claim Alleges Excessive Force in Arizona Inmate’s Death

Posted by Phoenix Homicide Attorney Nick Alcock:

The family of the man who died in December following an altercation with police and detention officers in a Maricopa County Jail has filed a $20 million notice of claim against the City of Phoenix, the Sheriff’s Office and the county agency responsible for health care in the jails.

44-year-old Ernest “Marty” Atencio, an inmate at the Fourth Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix was pronounced brain dead this past December just four days after he was removed from a safe cell. The claim alleges that excessive force coupled with a series of failures for medical professionals to tend to Atencio directly contributed to his death. The Maricopa County Medical Examiner last week issued a report that found Atencio died from cardiac arrest, acute psychosis, medical problems and law-enforcement subdual but the report did not list a manner of death.

However, Atencio’s family disagrees with the County Examiner’s report. They believe Atencio’s death was homicide, committed at the hands of Sheriff’s detention officers who were reacting to an altercation that began during the jail intake process. Video shows two Phoenix police officers physically handle Atencio after he refused to remove his left shoe to be scanned as he prepared to enter the jail. The Phoenix officers took Atencio to the ground and surveillance footage shows the detention officers dragging Atencio into a “safe cell,” where the number of officers in the small cell obscures their actions from the camera. As Atencio prepared to leave the booking area, he became uncooperative with the request of Phoenix officers but was not violent or combative, according to interviews with officers contained in the claim. When the Phoenix officer places his arm around Atencio’s neck and takes him to the ground, nearby officers join in the effort to subdue Atencio. His family termed the events that follow a “jailers’ riot.”

The Fourth Avenue Jail’s intake area is where inmates are screened for medical and mental-health concerns and the most serious are supposed to receive immediate attention. According to the claim, officers recognized Atencio’s signs of mental illness, but failed to respond. The mental health professional involved admitted that she did not complete a full assessment of Marty and sent him to an isolation cell,” the claim states.

The family filed a claim on Friday stating that at least one officer punched Atencio and that another officer shocked Atencio with a stun gun six times, with several of those strikes coming within inches of his heart. The notice of claim is a necessary precursor for a lawsuit against a public entity and state law requires the claims state a dollar amount for which the claims can be settled. Atencio’s family set that amount at $5 million for Phoenix police and $15 million for the county agencies. The claim does not request any damages from the Medical Examiner’s office but it does allege that the office attempted to shield the county from liability by failing to name a manner of death from one of the four descriptions: suicide, homicide, natural causes or accidental.

“The Medical Examiner’s report is part science and part defensive double-speak designed to deflect and limit the County’s liability,” the claim states. “The notion that Marty’s manner of death is ‘undetermined’ is a farcical sleight of hand by the County. The cardiac arrest was induced by the ‘law enforcement subdual,’ so it was obviously a ‘homicide,’ i.e., caused at the hands of other human beings.”

The Sheriff’s Office is continuing to investigate the incident.

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