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Lawsuit: Sheriff has illegal practice

Varga: Deputies don’t seize people based on single call

Published: Thursday, May 2, 2013 3:37 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, May 2, 2013 2:52 p.m. CDT

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DIXON – The Lee County Sheriff’s Department has an unconstitutional practice of seizing people it believes are mentally ill, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court.

The county insists that’s not true.

In February, Wilson Burnell, 55, amended his federal lawsuit against Lee County, Sheriff John Varga and deputies Andrew Tarr and William Roberts.

He contends two sheriff’s deputies broke into his Amboy house in 2009, used pepper spray, deployed a Taser, and knocked him unconscious with a flashlight.

According to the lawsuit, state law requires that a department must have “clear and convincing” evidence before involuntarily seizing people.

“In Lee County, all that is required is that an unverified phone call be made to involuntarily seize a citizen for being a danger to oneself or others; nothing more is required,” the lawsuit says.

The department’s policy and custom are to allow deputies to act without “requisite” legal authority, according to the lawsuit.

The department, it says, has “utterly” failed to train its deputies on how to deal with mentally ill people.

“The practice of sending out untrained deputies means the deputies must make up a policy as they go along,” the lawsuit says.

Burnell, through attorney Rene Hernandez of Rockford, is asking the court to bar the Sheriff’s Department from seizing citizens without existing constitutional and legal standards.

He also wants the court to rule that allegations made in a phone call are not enough to seize a citizen for being a danger to himself or others and being mentally ill.

The county, in its response, gives no information on its policy or procedure for dealing with mentally ill people. But it says Burnell presents no evidence that the county has the practice that he describes.

“There is no allegation, and certainly no explanation, as to a relationship between training failures, policies, practices or subjective decisions on mental illness and any harm he suffered,” the county says in its response. “At its worst, this is an insufficient, isolated instance of misconduct.”

Varga said his department often gets calls to ask that deputies check on the welfare of people. The department, he said, “absolutely” has no practice of seizing people based on one call.

He provided no further details on the incident, saying he didn’t want to comment on a pending lawsuit.

In its response to the lawsuit, the Sheriff’s Department says its deputies tried to restrain Burnell and used a Taser and an aerosol irritant. The county acknowledged a physical confrontation but gave no details.

Burnell wasn’t charged in the incident.

“The fact that he wasn’t charged wasn’t a reflection that the officers reported this incorrectly,” the county’s attorney, Patrick Moore, said in a January interview.

Burnell wasn’t charged because he got mental health treatment instead, which was what the state’s attorney’s office preferred, Moore said.

In an interview Wednesday, Moore said the county denies Burnell’s accusation of misconduct.

“The officers made their decisions based on the totality of the circumstances. We believe the officers made the right decisions,” he said.

Hernandez said he has no information on whether similar seizures occurred. But he said the county’s lack of a policy is troubling.

Both sides, Hernandez said, are “adamant” in their positions.

“It’ll have to be litigated in court,” he said.

He said he would soon file a response in court.

The lawsuit, filed in April 2012, seeks $200,000 in damages.

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