Arkansas Police Expect Suit After Squad Car Shooting

By JEANNIE NUSS | September 7, 2012

Attorneys for the family of a young man who was fatally shot in an Arkansas patrol car have asked police to preserve evidence about his death, and police say they are preparing for a likely lawsuit.

Lawyers for Chavis Carter’s family haven’t spelled out what kind of legal action they anticipate filing in the coming months, but they said negligence likely will play a role after a Jonesboro police officer searched Carter twice but didn’t find the gun that authorities say he used to shoot himself in the head.

“We’re waiting to see all the facts. Then, we’ll file appropriately,” said one of the family’s lawyers, Benjamin Irwin. “… But clearly negligence is going to be a part of it.”

Meanwhile, Jonesboro Police Chief Michael Yates said last week that police wouldn’t grant interviews as they were consulting attorneys, though he did respond to written questions from The Associated Press.

“In preparation for civil action, the investigation continues so that we may identify all parties associated with the case and seek additional witnesses if they can be identified and located,” Yates said in an email.

A state crime lab report concluded that Carter, 21, was on meth when he fatally shot himself in the head while his hands were cuffed behind his back on July 28 in Jonesboro, about 130 miles northeast of Little Rock. The officer who searched Carter twice and found marijuana but no gun was reprimanded, but has since returned back to work. Police said another officer who stopped a truck in which Carter was a passenger was cleared of any wrongdoing.

“I think there was a high degree of negligence that night,” Irwin said. “They had a duty and responsibility to search this man and at some point in time a gun ended up in the backseat of this car and this young man lost his life while in police custody. That in itself is not supposed to happen.”

Michael Johnson, who teaches criminal law and other courses at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock law school, said he could see a suit involving negligence if what police have said is true.

“The failure to adequately search and find a weapon, boy, that, I think puts the police department in a tough spot,” said Johnson, a former federal prosecutor.

Plus, Johnson said, “There’s a certain common sense reaction of: How could this possibly have happened that way?”

Authorities say other people have managed to shoot themselves while in handcuffs. Less than two weeks after Carter was shot in Arkansas, police in Mobile, Ala., said a man shot himself in the torso while he was handcuffed in the back of a squad car. Unlike Carter, that man survived.

A young man in Indianapolis did not. Police said 16-year-old Michael Taylor shot himself in the head in the back of a squad car while handcuffed in 1987.

His mother sued the city and police officers, arguing that her son’s fatal wound was the result of “the careless and negligent conduct of the defendants…” A jury agreed and awarded Taylor’s mother millions of dollars, though a judge and state appeals court later reduced the amount. Then, in 2000, Taylor’s family agreed to a settlement in which the city would pay them close to $2 million, according to The Indianapolis Star.

“Lawsuits are common in all in custody death cases,” Yates said.

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