Ahead of trial against St. Lucie County sheriff, court rules to exclude criminal history of man who died after police custody

By Charmaine Little | Nov 8, 2018

WEST PALM BEACH — The criminal history of a man who died after suffering a seizure while in police custody for fleeing a traffic stop will be excluded in a case against St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara and his deputy, a court has ruled.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida ruled on Oct. 11 that James Anderson's decades-old convictions for burglary, grand theft, robbery and firearms possession would be irrelevant in a case in which he fled Deputy Joseph Brennan after being stopped for not wearing a seat belt and had an "unwitnessed seizure" the following morning while in St. Lucie County Jail. He was transferred to the jail’s medical unit for a few hours, before being taken to Lawnwood Medical Center where he died from a stroke.

"Here, it is undisputed that Anderson stated after he was arrested that he ran from the stop because his driver’s license was suspended," the ruling said. "Sheriff Mascara and Deputy Brennan point to nothing in the record indicating that Anderson ran from the stop for any reason associated with his criminal background."

The court also granted in part and denied in part Mascara and Brennan’s motion for summary judgement.

Regarding a false arrest claim, the plaintiff and defendants disagree on whether Anderson left his car before Brennan pulled up behind him and turned on the lights, according to the ruling. The plaintiff contends that Anderson had already exited his car by the time Brennan stopped him, making him a pedestrian and his seizure illegal, the ruling said.

Because factual questions remain, "the Court cannot conclude as a matter of law that Deputy Brennan lawfully could require Anderson to remain at the scene," it said.

However, the court granted a motion for a summary judgment in the case's "Monell claim"—named after a Supreme Court opinion that a municipality can be liable for damages "when the execution of the municipality’s custom or policy inflicted the injury."

The plaintiff argued that the sheriff's office had a policy of pulling over a disproportionate number of African Americans for not wearing their seat belts and using excessive force against them, the ruling said. But Mascara said there was no proof that his office had any policy when it came to unlawful stops or excessive force. The court agreed and granted the motion for a summary judgment.

Fellow defendants Corizon Health and Corizon employee Christine Familia also filed for summary judgements for the medical negligence claims against them, but the court denied the motion, saying it should be left to a jury to decide.

It went on to deny a motion for summary judgment by the plaintiff, Kimberly Anderson, who sued the defendants on behalf of the late James Anderson and his survivors.

The plaintiff filed the lawsuit for battery, negligence and medical negligence for damages as an alleged result of the struggle during Anderson’s arrest.

The court also denied all parties' motions to exclude testimony. U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg ruled on the case.

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St.Lucie County Sheriff's U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida

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