ATLANTA (AP) — The use of a restraint chair by an Atlanta-area sheriff does not amount to excessive force under any clearly established law and federal charges against him should be dismissed, his lawyer argued Monday.
A federal prosecutor countered that Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill very clearly used excessive force against people in his agency’s custody when he ordered them to be held in a restraint chair without justification and as punishment.
A federal grand jury indicted Hill in April, finding he had violated the civil rights of four people at the county jail. A subsequent indictment filed in July added another alleged victim.
Attorneys for Hill have argued the U.S. Department of Justice has never brought criminal charges for any behavior similar to what’s alleged in the indictment and that prosecutors went after him because of his controversial past.
“If his name weren’t Victor Hill, your honor, we wouldn’t be here,” defense attorney Lynsey Barron said during a hearing on a defense request to dismiss the indictment.
A sheriff’s office policy approved by Hill says restraint chairs may be used to prevent injury or property damage if other techniques are not effective when dealing with a violent or uncontrollable person, the indictment says. But the policy says the use of the restraint chair “will never be authorized as a form of punishment.”
The indictment alleges that the men were improperly held in a restraint chair for hours even though they had complied with deputies and posed no threat. They suffered pain and bodily injury as a result, prosecutors have said.
Barron said the use of restraint chairs in jails is common, and there is no clear case law that indicates “when restraint crosses over the line into the area of force.”
Barron said prosecutors are asking the judge to “chart an area that hasn’t been charted yet.” While that area of the law does need to be fleshed out, she said, that’s something that should be done through civil litigation, not in a criminal case with the potential for significant prison time.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bret Hobson argued that courts have clearly established that when law enforcement officers continue to use force against someone in their custody who has stopped resisting, that force is considered excessive. In the examples provided in the indictment, he said, the people were not resisting to begin with so any use of force was unconstitutional.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Christopher Bly did not immediately rule on the defense motion to dismiss but said the arguments made by both sides were “exceedingly helpful.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in June suspended Hill until the charges against him are resolved or until his term of office is over, whichever comes first.
Hill has attracted controversy since he first became sheriff in Clayton County, just south of Atlanta.
He fired 27 deputies on his first day in office in 2005 and used a tank owned by the sheriff’s office during drug raids as part of a tough-on-crime stance adopted in his first term.
He failed to win reelection in 2008, but voters returned him to office in 2012 despite the fact that he faced more than two dozen criminal charges in a corruption case. A jury later acquitted him of all 27 charges, clearing the way for him to continue as sheriff.
Hill pleaded no contest to a reckless conduct charge in August 2016 after shooting and wounding a woman in a Gwinnett County model home in May 2015. Hill and the woman said it was an accident that happened while they were practicing police tactics.
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