Wrongful Death in Police Custody and the Defense of “Excited Delirium”

Wrongful death in police custody occurs too often.  The lawyers at Budge & Heipt handle in-custody wrongful death cases against police and jails or prisons. When someone dies in police custody, family members are often left to find answers on their own. Why did a loved one die? What were the facts and circumstances surrounding the in custody death? And do official explanations about the death in police custody make sense?

A common set of facts surrounds many in-custody wrongful death cases. Police encounter a person who is acting out of the ordinary— sometimes even in a bizarre manner. Often, the person suffers from a mental illness. Sometimes the person is under the influence of drugs. The person may be creating a disturbance and possibly even breaking the law. He or she may be disoriented, acting in a paranoid or aggressive manner, hallucinating, removing clothing, and even displaying aggressive behavior. Police attempt to take the person into custody. During the course of the encounter, police officers forcibly restrain the person—on the ground, in the back of a patrol car, or even in a “restraint chair” or similar device. During the course of the restraint, the person suddenly and unexpectedly dies. An investigation ensues, and the family is told that the person died from “excited delirium.” But what really caused the death?

Police, and even some medical examiners, often try to explain such in-custody deaths by claiming that the person died from “excited delirium.” “Excited delirium” is a vague and highly-controversial term among medical and police experts. “Excited delirium” has little medical meaning and has been described by some as a way for police to white-wash or cover-up their use of excessive force and inappropriate control techniques by officers during an arrest. In fact, it is no coincidence that nearly every death attributed to “excited delirium” involves people in police custody, and many of those cases involve restraint techniques that can compromise breathing and lead to asphyxia or suffocation.

The “excited delirium” defense is commonly encountered in civil rights cases alleging wrongful death by police. A case handled by Budge & Heipt in the early 2000s illustrates this perfectly. The facts were these: a young man under the influence of drugs was behaving in a bizarre way in the parking lot of a grocery store. He was speaking incoherently, “acting out” by hitting or punching cars, and was only partially clothed. Jefferson County Sheriff’s deputies arrived and forcibly took the man into custody. They handcuffed him, tied his feet together, and connected his feet to his hands behind his back in a position known as a “hog tie.” They kept the man face-down in the back of their patrol vehicle and held him face-down on the floor of the jail when they arrived there. While in custody, the man stopped breathing and died.

At issue in the case was the cause of death. Did the man die of “excited delirium” as the police claimed, or did he die from excessive force and restraint-related asphyxia? Working with some of the nation’s top experts, the lawyers at Budge & Heipt were able to cast serious doubt on the defense of “excited delirium,” showing that the man almost surely died from the excessive use of force by police and the improper restraint techniques that were used. After a lengthy court-battle, and with a jury trial nearing, the county agreed to pay $1.6 million to settle with the man’s parents and his estate.

Erik Heipt is an experienced courtroom litigator, focusing on catastrophic injury or wrongful death in prison or jail or by police. He seeks justice for the families and victims of wrongful death cases while incarcerated. Contact Budge & Heipt for a free consultation.

If you or a loved one has been a victim of serious injury and/or death at the hands of police or in jail or prison, tell us about your case.