Whether a Fort Smith police officer used excessive force in April 2014 when transporting a public intoxication suspect to jail was the subject for a jury in the U.S. District Court of Western Arkansas this week before Chief Judge P.K. Holmes III.
Clarence L. Scott, 44, sued former Fort Smith police Cpl. Justin Deleon, 44, as well as other officers in supervisory positions and the city, for the late-night incident that began at Rooster’s on Garrison Avenue around 3:15 a.m. April 18, 2014. The incident left Scott with broken teeth and jaw injuries sustained in the Sebastian County Detention Center “sally port.”
A staff member of the bar waved down Deleon that night after evicting Scott from the bar. Deleon had been on the search for a stolen car and asked for Scott’s identification several times before he relented. Scott was found to not have any warrants and asked to be let go.
One of Scott’s attorneys, Kathryn Hudson of Little Rock, told jurors Wednesday her client's constitutional rights were violated in that first encounter with Deleon and the next encounter at the jail was “excessive use of force.”
“We need our police officers and this trust but we can’t trust them with this happening,” Hudson said in her closing statements Wednesday at the federal courthouse in Fort Smith. “The video is our best witness.”
Video was viewed by jurors that show a handcuffed Scott being turned around by Deleon after he steps out of the police car, pushed against the trunk of the car and then flung around to the ground face forward.
Attorneys for Deleon say the police officer had only one second to make a decision and he felt Scott was “intoxicated, volatile and unpredictable.” Scott had shown an “aggressive posture,” the defense added, when exiting the car at the jail by taking two steps toward the police officer. Scott had said on the ride over from the bar that he was going to sue Deleon.
Deleon stated in his use of force report that he was “head butted” by Scott. The officer is seen rubbing his nose in a jail entrance video. In the video, their heads never appear to make contact. No medical attention was given to Deleon, and the head-butt claim was never retracted. Deleon said in his testimony Tuesday that he is uncertain when his nose was hit. A second-degree battery accusation on Scott, however, had been dismissed.
One of Deleon’s attorneys, Douglas Carson of Daily & Woods in Fort Smith, says the head-butt claim is “irrelevant” because his client faced someone who was already showing aggression on the transport from Rooster’s with verbal assaults that included “prejudice pig,” “racist,” and Scott had accused Deleon of stealing his money. Deleon, who was a Fort Smith police officer for 12 years, said he had developed "thick skin" and the verbal assaults did not phase him. Hudson, however, feels that it did rattle him, and he "lost his temper."
“It’s simply an unfortunate occurrence,” Carson said. “The city has sound policies and Justin Deleon was trying to follow those policies and regulations as best he could.”
Carson said if Scott had “gotten up and stood there we wouldn’t be in this courtroom today.”
Hudson said her client was indeed angry for being “falsely arrested” in the first place for “obstruction of government justice” by not immediately providing his identification. Scott was arrested “without incident,” according to Deleon. At the “sally port,” the officer says he lost his balance after trying to regain control of Scott, who he said twisted once he swung him around one-handed. Deleon's attorneys also say the officer did not intend to injure Scott.
Scott told jurors that Deleon used a “military” style maneuver to force him to the ground at the "sally port." Deleon, who said in court he is medically retired after having a stroke, told jurors he lost his balance and Scott fell to the left over his leg as they both fell in opposite directions. Deleon did not fall down though. Scott fell face first with his hands cuffed behind his back.
Scott was taken to Sparks Regional Medical Center by Deleon for treatment within 15 minutes of arriving at the jail. However, medical staff refused treatment after several attempts. It was noted in court that Scott was being “belligerent” and uncooperative.
Lt. Dewey Young, who assisted in removing Scott from the police car that night after visiting Sparks, said during a court recess that it is not “preferred” for the arresting officer to transport an injured suspect to the hospital.
A decision by the jury should be available today.