Police force used on seizure victims is not uncommon

Posted: March 27, 2014

CHESTER Darren Scott was Tasered by a Chester police officer in an usual venue - inside the ambulance that was transporting Scott to a hospital.

Scott later was charged with resisting arrest and assault and ordered held in lieu of $100,000 bail. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Wednesday before Judge Spencer B. Seaton.

But another aspect of the incident evidently wasn't all that unusual: Scott, backed by witnesses, contends that he had just suffered an epileptic-like seizure that afternoon of March 12.

Chester police say they are investigating the details, but incidents in which seizure victims are arrested for failing to respond to or obey police orders evidently are common. And while some police departments have taken steps to try to recognize the signs, others have not.

Based on legal inquiries it receives, the Epilepsy Foundation estimates that annually 400 individuals who suffered such seizures end up charged with assault or resisting arrest.

Law enforcement officials say that police sometimes need to use force and that some criminals try to fake seizures. Epilepsy advocates counter that a lack of awareness and training can exacerbate a situation.

"It is a medical condition that is not being understood here," said Allison McCartin, executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation Eastern Pennsylvania.

In January, a Connecticut man filed suit against a town for an incident in which he was Tasered by two officers while having a seizure in his car.

In 2011, a Florida man was Tasered 10 times during a seizure, arrested, and convicted. Later, he was exonerated.

In 2006, a Michigan man was Tasered and jailed for resisting arrest after a witness mistook his arm motions during a seizure. A state psychologist would later confirm he had a seizure, according to media reports.

And last year, a Gloucester County man, Taharqu Dean, filed a federal lawsuit contending he was jailed and beaten after a seizure.

"Police training in general is indifferent to epileptics," said Matthew Weisberg, a Delaware County attorney who represents Dean. As part of the case, Weisberg is asking for training for police and further oversight for the police department.

'Very worthwhile'

In Pennsylvania, police cadets aren't trained to deal with special-needs individuals, including those with epilepsy, said Rudy Grubesky, at the Municipal Police Officers' Education and Training Commission, in Harrisburg. In 2001, a similar three-hour course was given to the state's 25,000 officers.

Supplemental training for seizure awareness does produce benefits, police officials say.

Lancaster City's 100 police officers went through an hour-long training offered by the Epilepsy Foundation in 2012, said Sgt. Matthew Blake.

"Anytime you get some understanding of another medical issue, it is very worthwhile," Blake said. They plan to repeat the training in a few years, he said.

"It opens your eyes to things you should look for," said Robert Smythe, police chief of Darby Borough. In 1999, Darby police underwent training as part of a court settlement, after a resident was roughed up and handcuffed during a seizure.

Smythe said his officers understand that flailing hands might not mean aggressive behavior. "Is it real violence or an uncontrollable disease?" Smythe said.

Police Commissioner Joseph Bail did not return calls for comment on Chester's training procedures in handling such cases.

'Strange disease'

Scott, who had no history of epilepsy, suffered a "grand mal seizure," according to Scott's attorney, Enrique Latoison. Such seizures, common among epileptics, can be brought on by other conditions, according to medical experts.

On March 12, Chester police were dispatched to assist an ambulance called to Two Js Sandwich Shop for a man having a seizure. Witnesses interviewed said Scott was disoriented and uncooperative when he came to. Scott became combative in the ambulance, kicking a medic and grabbing an officer, according to the affidavit of probable cause. He was Tasered twice.

Scott suffered a punctured lung and compression fractures to his back, Latoison said.

Police contend that Scott, who has a lengthy criminal record for burglary and theft, did not have a seizure and charged him with assault of a law enforcement officer and related counts.

Frances Minnis, the civil attorney hired by Scott's family, which is considering filing suit, said it made "no sense" that her client ended up in jail for a seizure, which was the reason the ambulance and police had been summoned.

The Scott incident sounded all too familiar to Christopher Munley, of Scranton, former vice president of a collections agency.

In 2012, coworkers called 911 when he had a seizure while he was at work.

"The next thing I know I am chained to a hospital bed, criminally charged, and all bruised up," said Munley, 39. His seizures began in the last 10 years and are of undetermined cause.

Munley said he might have "superhuman strength" and become combative during seizures. Other times, he would have an opposite reaction and become solicitious and eager to please.

"It is a strange disease," said Munley, who has been seizure-free for a year.

On the day of his arrest, he said, he was sitting at his desk recovering but still not fully aware when a police officer began giving orders, he said.

"I took a swing at him and walked out the door," Munley said. He was Tasered twice, and restrained. "I broke the shackles."

'Tough case'

"It is a tough case for the cops no matter how well they are trained," said William Fisher, Lackawanna County assistant district attorney, who disputed Munley's contention that he was disoriented.

Munley, who has a prior criminal history for theft, has not filed a civil suit. His marriage, already strained by his seizures, broke up after he was charged. He lost his job shortly after his seizure and spent three days in jail, the result of a paperwork error.

Munley, whose case is ongoing, said the officer should have let him recover before trying to get him into an ambulance.

Said Munley, "I just want this whole nightmare to be over."


mschaefer@phillynews.com

610-313-8111

@MariSchaefer

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