VALDOSTA – A 46-year-old Black man is south Georgia has sued the Valdosta, Georgia police department claiming excessive force in a Feb. 8 incident where he was mistaken for a suspect in a panhandling investigation. His attorney is calling the incident a civil rights violation.
The man's wrist was fractured during a police takedown.
The city said Monday it is reviewing the incident and has posted body camera video along with a statement on social media.
Attorney Nathaniel Haugabrook of Copeland, Haugabrook and Walker said officers injured his client, Antonio Arnelo Smith, and violated his rights after they mistook him for a suspect.
The lawsuit was filed Friday afternoon in federal court and names Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson, members of the Valdosta City Council, Valdosta Police Chief Leslie Manahan, three Valdosta patrolmen and one police sergeant as defendants.
The lawsuit demands a jury trial.
The suit states: “Defendants’ actions, omissions and deliberate indifference to violations of clearly established constitutional rights caused Mr. Smith to suffer physical, mental and emotional injuries.”
Haugabrook contends Smith’s arm was broken during the interaction with the police and Smith has had to endure physical therapy because of it.
Smith is asking for compensation and punitive damages in the amount of $700,000, according to the lawsuit.
The Valdosta Daily Times informed the city of the lawsuit shortly after it was filed Friday afternoon and gave city officials until Monday to respond.
Monday morning, city officials told The Valdosta Daily Times they were aware of the suit. On Monday afternoon, city officials told The Times in a statement, "the city has not had time to review the document and therefore cannot comment on the content of the suit."
A short time later, the city made a social media statement saying it was "fully committed to transparency."
"The City of Valdosta and the Valdosta Police Department takes any report of any injury to a citizen seriously. Although there was no complaint filed with VPD, once the shift supervisor was notified, it prompted the review process of the incident by the officer’s supervisor, patrol bureau commander, Internal Affairs Division and chief of police," the statement said.
A five-minute, 42-second video of body camera footage was also released by the city Monday afternoon.
Haugabrook gave The Valdosta Daily Times a video that is 11 minutes and 31 seconds.
Late morning, Feb. 8, officers responded to a report of panhandling outside of a pharmacy on North Ashley Street, Haugabrook said.
The lawsuit states an officer made contact with a man on the north side of the pharmacy. After running a background and warrants check, she found the man had an outstanding warrant.
After the man was arrested, she asked a male officer who’d just arrived to look on the west side of the building “concerning an unknown male who had been asking customers for money and to determine if (the pharmacy) wanted a criminal trespass warrant issued” for the man arrested, court documents state.
A customer told the male officer the man was headed south out of the parking lot; no description of the man was given.
During his search, the officer saw a man walking south near a hotel, about 100 yards away, documents state.
The officer got in his car, drove down the road and made contact with the man who was then identified as Smith, documents state.
The Valdosta Daily Times retrieved footage of the encounter recorded on the officer’s body camera. The 11-minute video starts at the officer’s interaction with the man.
Body Cam Footage
In the video, one patrolman is heard informing the man that he was looking into “suspicious activity.” The man said he was up the road waiting for his sister to wire him money. He maintained he was seen on cameras waiting for the money.
The officer asked for identification and the man complied.
A police sergeant arrived on scene. He walked up to the man who was being questioned, appearing to grab his right wrist before reaching across his back and grabbing his left arm. He wraps his arms around him and instructs him to put his hands behind his back three times.
After the third time, the sergeant lifts the man and puts him flat on the ground. By this time, two more officers have arrived and the man is placed in handcuffs.
“I wasn’t doing anything,” the man is heard saying in the video.
After realizing the man may have sustained an injury, the officers instruct the man to relax and remove the handcuffs.
They tell him that a warrant had been issued for his arrest; at this point, the patrolman who initially approached the man informs the others that the suspect with the warrant is up the street.
The sergeant says, “I thought it was the one with the warrant.”
The first patrolman clarifies the situation with the other officers, and then, they attempt to help the man with his injury. They tell him an ambulance is on the way. The sergeant walks to his patrol car.
At this point, the officers learn a scan on the man’s license returns “good.”
The man begins to nurse his left arm but refuses medical attention.
“I was getting ready to put my hands behind my back,” he said in the video. “He forcibly picked me up.”
After returning to the group, the sergeant asks the man if he understood the events that had taken place and the man said yes before leaving.
Haugabrook said he later went to the hospital for assistance.
In his report, the sergeant states he was monitoring his police radio during a call at a North Ashley Street pharmacy “in reference to a Black male disrupting the store and harassing customers.” The caller said the man was attempting to leave, his report states.
Dispatch gave a name of a person wanted in Cook County and the City of Valdosta over the radio, his report states.
He heard a patrolman say “the subject” was walking through a hotel, and believing someone was trying to evade contact with law enforcement, he drove in that direction, according to the report.
The sergeant said he drove to a nearby restaurant after finding no one at the hotel. He later discovered the patrolman was in a grassy lot with a man later identified as Smith.
As he approached the scene, the sergeant stated he noticed the patrolman talking to Smith who was “standing with a ‘bladed’ stance and he appeared to be arguing or debating with” the patrolman.
“Based on what I observed and believing this person to have a warrant for his arrest, I grasped his right wrist. I felt Smith tense up and begin to pull away from me. At that time, I wrapped my arms around Smith in a ‘bear hug,’” the sergeant wrote in his report.
He stated he adjusted his grip after the patrolman asked Smith to put his arms behind his back and that Smith “continued to press his arms outward against mine.”
The sergeant stated Smith did not comply with orders and he pulled Smith “off-balance and rolled him to the ground to gain control of him in anticipation of a warrant arrest.”
As hand irons were being placed on Smith, he yelled his wrist was hurting, according to the sergeant’s report. He stated he noticed Smith had a potential injury to his left wrist.
“I was unsure if it was dislocated or broken,” the sergeant stated. "Hand irons were removed and we assisted him in rolling over onto his back.”
He said he used no further restraint on Smith because he did not want to cause additional pain. He called for emergency medical services, he stated.
“I was unsure how Smith’s injury occurred, whether he had placed his arm out to the side or between us,” he stated.
After learning that Smith was not the suspect with a warrant, he reported he immediately notified a lieutenant and was told by a patrolman that Smith refused medical attention and asked to leave.
The sergeant reported he confirmed with Smith his refusal of medical help. He reported Smith understood what had happened “and that he was not angry with us, but he just wanted to go.”
The sergeant noted his actions were being recorded on a body-worn camera and that his in-car camera was not in view of the incident.
An administrative review was completed and no action was taken on the officers involved, Haugabrook said.
Haugabrook filed the federal lawsuit on Smith’s behalf on grounds of conspiracy to create a false report, excessive force, false detention, false arrest and assault and battery.
Haugabrook claims the patrolman falsified his report to reflect Smith was told to put his hands behind his back before the sergeant touched him.
“That’s not the case,” he said.
Court documents state Smith sustained “distal radial and ulnar fractures” and was fitted for a sling before being discharged on pain medication from the hospital. He was referred to an orthopedic surgeon.
Haugabrook said he thinks the case is a civil rights case as he said officers violated Smith’s civil rights “to be free from an unlawful arrest, unlawful detention and all of the other rights that goes along with us being citizens.”
The lawsuit states the sergeant putting Smith in a bear hug and then detaining him was “unnecessary and illegal.”
It states no reason existed to believe Smith committed a crime or was about to commit a crime, was armed or was a danger or threat.
The lawsuit asserts the sergeant acted with malice and with reckless indifference.