April 23, 2017 Fair, 54F

Sheriff: Counselor said man was suicidal

DIXON – The Lee County Sheriff’s Department, which is facing a lawsuit over the seizure of a man, says it did so because his counselor warned the agency the man was suicidal.

The Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff John Varga and deputies Andrew Tarr and William Roberts are defending themselves against a federal lawsuit filed by Wilson Burnell in 2011.

Burnell, 55, contends the 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 his lawsuit, state law requires that a department must have “clear and convincing” evidence before involuntarily seizing people. All it takes for a seizure in Lee County, the lawsuit claims, is an “unverified phone call.”

The department lacks a policy for dealing with mentally ill people and gives no training for such situations, the lawsuit says.

The Sheriff’s Department, in a reply filed Wednesday, pointed to depositions of deputies, who said they had received training. The department further contends that it has a use of force policy.

A number of officers, the response says, have testified the department has an unwritten policy that they can take someone believed to be suicidal into custody to be seen by a professional.

Burnell’s lawsuit, the department says, is “little more than a litany of incorrect, unsupported and inflammatory allegations.”

“While the plaintiff concedes he suffers from mental illness, he does not concede he acted in a manner that would lead a reasonably well-trained deputy to believe he was mentally ill and therefore he makes no connection between alleged mental illness training failure and his circumstances,” the lawsuit says. “The obvious reason is that it would admit the defendants have made observations that corroborated the reports of a suicidal subject.”

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

Burnell wasn’t charged in the incident. According to Lee County’s online court records, his last brush with the law was in 2000, when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct.

Earlier this month, Rene Hernandez, Burnell’s attorney, argued in court documents that the lack of a policy dealing with mentally ill people is the problem.

“[T]he deputies are left to their own devices when dealing with mentally ill suspects or citizens,” he wrote.

The Sheriff’s Department has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The federal court has yet to rule on it.

Back to home page