Massachusetts police may be liable for allegedly tackling and suffocating a man who tried to flee a sobriety checkpoint on foot, a federal judge ruled.
In November 2009, the MA. state police and officers from the North Andover and Essex County departments set up a sobriety checkpoint manned by 33 officers on Route 114.
While driving down Route 114 toward North Andover with his pitbull, Ruckus, that evening, Kenneth Howe lit up a marijuana blunt. He quickly attempted to put out the blunt and put on his seatbelt when he saw the checkpoint.
Trooper Jodi Gerardi, who had noticed Howe's "furtive movements," ordered Howe out of his pickup as soon as she smelled marijuana. It is disputed whether Howe hit Gerardi as he got out of his truck or vice versa, but both parties agree that he attempted to flee on foot.
Howe was quickly apprehended and forced to the ground by 10 to 15 officers who rushed to assist Gerardi.
Three troopers held down the handcuffed suspect while his legs were shackled. Some witnesses say Trooper Sean McGarry hit Howe a number of times with his hands and baton, and Officer Richard DesForge put Howe in a chokehold.
A photographer for the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, Carl Russo, happened to be on the scene and chronicled the arrest with 43 time-stamped photographs. The photos show Howe pinned to the ground for 11 minutes before the officers picked him up and put him in a police cruiser.
It is disputed whether Howe was conscious when he was placed in the vehicle, but he was unconscious when he arrived at the Massachusetts state police barracks. Howe had no pulse by the time the ambulance arrived, and he was pronounced dead at midnight.
Attributing cause of death to "blunt impact of the head and torso with compression of the chest," the medical examiner ruled the case a homicide.
In denying most defendants' motions, however, U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton said that "a reasonable jury could find that the actions of the restraining officers and the witnessing officers were so objectively unreasonable and plainly misguided that qualified immunity should not be interposed to shield them from liability."
Court document: www.courthousenews.com/2012/04/19/howe.pdf