[John Briggs], 49, died March 2004 after he swallowed a plastic bag of crack cocaine as jail deputies prepared him for a strip search. Believing it was drugs, two deputies tried to force Briggs to spit it out. The bag lodged in Briggs’ airway, choking him.
A medical expert who reviewed the autopsy and death investigation for Briggs’ family recently concluded that the deputies’ actions increased the likelihood the bag would slip into Briggs’ airway and choke him. The deputies then took Briggs to the ground. He struggled, but deputies handcuffed him and sat him up. Briggs stuck out his tongue, showing the deputies an empty mouth.
Depending on whom you believe, Pinellas jail deputies either tried to save John Briggs from dying, or they contributed to his death. Briggs, 49, died March 2004 after he swallowed a plastic bag of crack cocaine as jail deputies prepared him for a strip search. Believing it was drugs, two deputies tried to force Briggs to spit it out. The bag lodged in Briggs’ airway, choking him.
A medical expert who reviewed the autopsy and death investigation for Briggs’ family recently concluded that the deputies’ actions increased the likelihood the bag would slip into Briggs’ airway and choke him.
This week, the family’s attorney, John Trevena, sent a letter to Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats asking him to open another investigation into the case. Trevena also has asked the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate Briggs’ death. “But for the action of the deputies, particularly the violent struggle, which they initiated, he would be alive,” Trevena said.
But sheriff’s officials say the deputies had an obligation to get what Briggs swallowed. Not only could Briggs have choked on the item, but he could have overdosed. The bag and the crack cocaine Briggs swallowed weighed about 5.4 grams, potentially enough to kill him if the bag dissolved in his stomach.”Then we’d probably say they were negligent for letting him swallow it,” said Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Dr. Jon Thogmartin.
There also is no way to know for certain that the struggle with deputies caused the bag, a 5- by 5-inch piece of cellophane fashioned into a pouch, to lodge in Briggs’ airway. But Trevena thinks it would have harmlessly slipped into his stomach had the deputies left him alone. He thinks deputies should have summoned medical staff and placed Briggs in observation until he passed the bag.
Trevena said Briggs’ family doesn’t plan to file a lawsuit. But family members want the Sheriff’s Office to implement a policy prohibiting deputies from struggling with people who swallow things.Sheriff’s officials say they will review the request but have no plans to launch another investigation. An initial review of Briggs’ death by the agency’s internal affairs unit found no policy violations.
It’s not uncommon for suspects to swallow drugs to hide them from officers. Police tactics experts say most agencies allow officers to use their discretion – and some degree of force – in trying to get the suspect to spit it out. Courts have ruled that police can try to force someone to spit if they have reasonable suspicion the person swallowed drugs, said Lewis Katz, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland.
In Ohio, a judge ruled police acted lawfully when they squeezed a man’s testicles to try to get him to spit out drugs. He spit. But Katz, who specializes in search and seizure law, said he thinks Pinellas deputies may have been wiser to merely observe Briggs until he passed the bag.
St. Petersburg police arrested Briggs, who had a history of drug arrests, on March 10, 2004, after they found marijuana in his pocket. Officers searched him three times, but didn’t find more drugs. As Briggs removed his clothes for a strip search, two deputies saw him quickly stuff something in his mouth. They didn’t see what it was, but they had a reasonable suspicion it was drugs, said sheriff’s spokesman Mac McMullen.
The deputies grabbed Briggs and told him to spit it out. Both pushed on his cheeks, which is an accepted maneuver, McMullen said. The deputies then took Briggs to the ground. He struggled, but deputies handcuffed him and sat him up. Briggs stuck out his tongue, showing the deputies an empty mouth.
The deputies then leaned him on his side to put on pants and leg shackles. Moments later, they noticed he was unresponsive and turning blue. They called medical staff and dialed 911. Briggs was taken to Northside Hospital and pronounced dead. An autopsy determined Briggs died of accidental asphyxiation.
Photos of the cell show blood on the walls and floor. Briggs’ sister, Brenda Harding, thinks the deputies used excessive force. “They did something to John in that room,” she said. But Thogmartin, the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner, said Briggs suffered abrasions and cuts that are consistent with a struggle with deputies. “It’s not like somebody beat him up,” he said.
Trevena asked Dr. Daniel J. Spitz, a former associate medical examiner in Hillsborough County who now is a coroner in Michigan, to review the case. Spitz’s report said the deputies’ struggle with Briggs increased the chance he would choke on the bag. “He should have been closely observed rather than engaged in a violent struggle,” Spitz wrote.
Thogmartin said Spitz is not qualified to assess how the deputies acted. “Dr. Spitz isn’t an expert in booking people,” Thogmartin said. “It’s beyond the realm of both his and my expertise to be opining on what the police should have done.”
Sgt. Randy Sutton, who is in charge of advanced training for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said police have an obligation to not only retrieve an item in someone’s mouth for evidence purposes, but potentially to save the suspect’s life. “They could have just as easily saved his life had they gotten that bag out of there in time,” said Sutton.
Copyright Times Publishing Co. Aug 27, 2005