Federal judge denies qualified immunity defense in police custody death

Nov. 15—A federal judge has ruled against three Kokomo Police Department officers' defense of qualified immunity in relation to a man's 2017 death while in police custody.

Chief Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana earlier this month denied officers Aaron Tarrh, Jeramie Dodd and Richie Sears' motion for summary judgment.

The crux of the officers' argument was that they are entitled to qualified immunity, which protects government employees from being personally liable for constitutional violations so long as the officials don't violate "clearly established" law, in relation to the accidental overdose death of 21-year-old Tavaras McGuire of Kokomo.

Pratt, though, wrote in an 18-page order that the officers are not entitled to qualified immunity because of the factual disputes surrounding McGuire's death.

"The Court finds that the question of whether the three officers — Tarrh, Dodd and Sears — were objectively reasonable in handling McGuire's need for medical treatment is a question of material fact that should be decided by a jury," Pratt writes. "In particular, there is material fact in dispute regarding whether a reasonable officer in Defendants' position would have been on notice that McGuire had medical need requiring emergency intervention."

McGuire died Feb. 4, 2017, inside an Ascension St. Vincent Kokomo emergency room as a result of an accidental amphetamine overdose shortly after being arrested during a traffic stop.

An autopsy and toxicology report revealed McGuire had ingested methamphetamine prior to being taken into custody by the KPD officers. Meth residue and a plastic baggie were found in his clothing after he died. A fragment of a plastic baggie was also found in his stomach.

McGuire's estate, headed by his mother, filed a lawsuit in federal court in early 2019, alleging the defendants violated McGuire's Fourth Amendment rights and failed to adequately respond and attend to McGuire's medical needs, leading to his untimely death. A state law negligence claim against the three officers and former KPD Chief Robert Baker has also been filed and is continuing to be litigated.

According to court documents, a vehicle McGuire was riding in was pulled over by police at 11:55 p.m. Feb. 3, 2017. McGuire would soon be arrested after police found 11.6 grams of methamphetamine on him, arriving at the Howard County Jail at 12:24 a.m. Feb. 4, 2017, and showing no apparent signs of impairment or distress.

But at 12:54 a.m., McGuire, according to court documents, began to fidget, and he removed his shirt and leaned over to get a drink of water from the water fountain two minutes later. At 12:58 a.m., McGuire knocked his head on the book-in counter.

The change in McGuire's behavior, according to court documents, was noticed by jail staff and the arresting officers, and they began to ask McGuire questions to determine "why he was acting so strangely."

It was then determined by the officers that McGuire needed to go to the hospital. At approximately 1 a.m., Dodd radioed in a call for an ambulance, which arrived by 1:04 a.m. and paramedics were with McGuire at 1:08 a.m. They noticed McGuire's heart rate was faster than normal, and a little after 1:18 a.m. they placed an IV in McGuire's right arm.

At 1:22 a.m., according to court documents, an additional IV was placed in McGuire's thigh and the ambulance left the jail en route to St. Vincent Kokomo Hospital. At that time, McGuire was unresponsive, not breathing and had no cardiac activity, according to court documents.

For the next several minutes, paramedics and a physician tried to resuscitate McGuire. At 1:52 a.m., McGuire had a pulse for one to two minutes, but he was later pronounced dead at 1:54 a.m.

In previous court filings, the estate has argued that precious time was lost when police decided to call in an ambulance rather than drive McGuire to Ascension St. Vincent Kokomo, which is located on the same street two minutes from the county jail.

Dr. Julian Ungar-Sargon, the estate's expert and a medical doctor who specializes in neurology and pain management, said McGuire's twitching of his arms and legs should have alerted officers to a possible medical emergency. He added that the decision to call an ambulance rather than transferring McGuire to the hospital in a police vehicle was a critical delay.

On the contrary, the defendants have argued the city police officers did not fail to provide adequate and timely medical care.

Their expert, Dr. Jason D. May, wrote in his opinion that McGuire's actions prior to 12:54 a.m. "would not be considered indicative of someone needing medical attention," that there was "no delay" in a call for medical assistance and that calling an ambulance "was an appropriate thing to do."

This is now the second time Pratt has denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment.

The first came in July 2021, and it was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in January. The federal appeals court did not issue a ruling favoring one side or the other and instead called the appeal "premature," sent the case back to the district court and ordered Pratt to rule on the qualified immunity question.

It remains to be seen if the defendants will appeal the latest denial.

A new jury trial date has not been scheduled as of Monday.

Tyler Juranovich can be reached at 765-454-8577, by email at tyler.juranovich@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at @tylerjuranovich.