Too often, when a person dies in police custody, police reports either fail to shed any light on the cause of death, are silent as to the true circumstances surrounding an in-custody death, or attribute the death to some other cause such as “excited delirium,” use of drugs, or pre-existing medical conditions. Learning the real facts about asphyxia and suffocation by police requires “reading between the lines” of official reports, interviewing key witnesses, taking depositions of police officers, and working closely with forensic scientists and medical experts to learn what really happened.

Budge & Heipt has successfully handled numerous in-custody suffocation cases. Sometimes called “restraint-related asphyxia” or “positional asphyxia,” such deaths have a common theme: the excessive use of force by police causing a person to be deprived of oxygen.

Our lawyers have handled cases involving asphyxia or suffocation from the use of “spit hoods” (often combined with the over-use of pepper or chemical spray), hog-tying, pressure to the back and upper extremities during an arrest, choke-holds, and “piling on” by groups of officers during the course of an arrest or restraint.

The attorneys at Budge & Heipt are experienced at disproving police explanations such as the so-called “excited delirium” defense and other official claims for what caused a suffocation death or brain injury during the course of an arrest or restraint. Our notable achievements include multi-million dollar settlements for brain-injured individuals and for family members whose loved ones died from police restraints, the use of spit hoods, and asphyxiation or suffocation caused by the use of too much pressure to a person’s back during the course of an arrest.

In one notable case handled by Budge & Heipt, we represented the victim of restraint-related asphyxia by members of the Seattle Police Department. The incident arose when police officers confronted a mentally ill man at his apartment. Instead of using crisis intervention techniques, police quickly escalated the situation—eventually resulting in numerous officers piling on the man and holding him down, prone (face down) on the ground. As in any situation where police place weight on the back of a prone person, breathing can be impaired, leading to a substantial risk of suffocation or asphyxia. But even after taking control of the man, the police continued to use force. Among other things, they used a spit hood over the man’s hood—a potentially dangerous practice, particularly as the man was bleeding from the face.

Eventually, the man’s inability to breathe caused him to go into cardiac arrest, resulting in a substantial brain injury. Our excessive force lawsuit enabled us to gather additional information surrounding the force used on the man—we deposed the police officers under oath, hired experts to analyze the spit hood, located eyewitnesses not mentioned in the police reports, and eventually settled the case for a then-record settlement of $1.75 million.

In another case, the attorneys at Budge & Heipt represented the estate of a man who died after a confrontation with police in a small town. Police responded to a report of a man acting strangely in a grocery store parking lot. Eventually, police “hog-tied” the man—a potentially dangerous and risky practice. He was transported to the local jail, placed face down on the floor, and eventually stopped moving. Despite this, the door was closed, and officers left. He was later found dead. With the help of retained experts, and through thorough depositions of the involved officers and others, we successfully pursued a lawsuit that resulted in a settlement of $1.6 million.

In yet another restraint-related asphyxia lawsuit, we represented the estate of a young man who died after police used chemical spray, police batons, a less-lethal shotgun, and then literally stood on the young man’s upper back or neck. The man died at the scene. With the help of police and medical experts, we pursued the case vigorously through trial and beyond—eventually securing a seven-figure settlement after a federal jury trial and post-trial motions.

Every lawsuit resulting from allegations of asphyxia and suffocation is different, but common themes tend to permeate these cases: often there is unusual behavior by the victim (sometimes due to mental illness and sometimes due to drug use); often police respond in great numbers and hold the victim down in a prone position causing breathing to be impeded; often police fail to turn the victim to one side to aid in breathing (even after handcuffs or leg restraints are applied); and sometimes other factors (such as the use of chemical spray or spit hoods) can also inhibit breathing.

As with every excessive force case, lawsuits involving asphyxia and suffocation can present unique challenges. Qualified immunity is one such challenge, and experienced attorneys must be prepared to demonstrate that police were on notice of the excessiveness of their conduct and the constitutional limits surrounding their use of force.

In addition, cause of death can be a unique challenge, as police will sometimes claim that the individual was a victim of “excited delirium” or pre-existing medical conditions rather than an inability to breathe. Attorneys with the experience and resources to hire top-quality experts on these subjects can be better positioned to address these common legal defenses. And, as with every excessive force case, asphyxia and suffocation lawsuits against police can benefit from an understanding of how these cases develop, how police tend to justify their uses of force, and proven alternatives for dealing with people who may be unable to comprehend commands. In short, the successful pursuit of these sometimes-difficult cases involves skill, diligence, resources, and experience. The lawyers at Budge & Heipt bring years of experience to the table—and when we take a case, we bring all that experience to bear.

If you or your loved one was a victim of asphyxiation or suffocation by police, resulting in serious injury or death, please contact our office to talk about your case. There is absolutely no cost or obligation to do so.

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.